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Posted at 11:50 AM ET, 02/23/2011

Why Wisconsin matters so much to labor

By Chris Cillizza



Protesters in Wisconsin. AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, Steve Apps

The ongoing standoff between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and organized labor has obvious practical implications, the most obvious of which is whether the right of public-sector unions to collectively bargain will be maintained or eroded.

But, the symbolic import of the Wisconsin showdown is no less critical as it comes at a time when the labor movement nationally is struggling to maintain its once-dominant role in electoral politics.

Exit polling shows a troubling trend line for union influence on elections. In 2008, just 21 percent of the electorate said they had a union member in their household -- the lowest percentage in any presidential election dating back to 1972.

Judging solely by exit poll data, union power in electoral politics peaked in the 1976 presidential election when more than one in three voters -- 34 percent -- said they had a union member in their family.

That number dropped steadily over the next four presidential election and by 1996 less than one-quarter (24 percent) of the electorate said a member of their household was in a union.

The 2000 election -- with a unified labor movement humming on all cylinders -- saw union households rise to 26 percent of the electorate; union turnout operations were also credited with closing down George W. Bush's lead over Al Gore in the final days of the race.

But, the union share of the vote has fallen in each of the last two presidential elections and dropped to a remarkably low 17 percent of the electorate in the 2010 midterms. (One important historical note: Union households comprised only 14 percent of the electorate in the 1994 midterm elections that saw Republicans retake control of the House for first time in 40 years.)

It's important to remember that using only exit polling to judge the political influence of unions doesn't capture the full picture. The Democratic party has long relied on unions to serve as its de facto turnout operation -- particularly among African American and Hispanic voters -- meaning that labor has more political influence than the exits suggest.

Still, even some close allies of the labor movement acknowledge that the shrinking union share of the electorate is problematic.

"The problem is that the number of workers represented by unions is getting smaller while the electorate is getting bigger," explained one senior labor strategist.

The source did note, however, that while union household numbers have been declining everywhere, union-affiliated voters still represent a quarter or more of all voters in key swing states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. (According to 2010 exit polls, 26 percent of Wisconsin voters were members of a union household.)

The declining union numbers also come at a time of significant turmoil for the labor movement.

In 2005, the AFL-CIO was split apart when the Service Employees International Union -- among others -- left to form a coalition known as Change To Win, criticizing the AFL for not doing enough to reverse the decline in union membership on their way out the door.

While those within the labor movement downplay the split and note that the two organizations still work together on many things -- including co-sponsoring a recent poll on the Wisconsin standoff -- it's clearly been a stress point for a movement trying to reclaim the political momentum it had in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

There has also been considerable turnover among the upper echelons of the labor movement in recent years with Richard Trumka taking over for John Sweeney at the AFL and Mary Kay Henry succeeding Andy Stern as president of SEIU. (Anna Burger, a longtime Stern loyalist, also stepped aside as chairwoman of Change To Win following her unsuccessful campaign to head up SEIU.)

Given all of that, a show of grassroots organizing force like the one labor is putting on in Wisconsin is meant to send a clear signal to Republicans (and even some Democrats) that while labor may be down, it is far from out.

"The past seven days has fired folks up like nothing people here can remember," said Eddie Vale, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. "Facing serious and imminent threats makes past issues or fights seem much less important. Public [unions], private [unions], AFL-CIO, Change to Win and the NEA are all together here on the ground and in all the other states."

Winning in Wisconsin -- or at least the perception of victory in the state -- is absolutely critical then for a labor movement in need of some good news.

If Wisconsin winds up re-energizing the rank and file union members in advance of the 2012 presidential election, the labor movement may well be thanking rather than castigating Scott Walker.

By Chris Cillizza  | February 23, 2011; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  Democratic Party, Republican Party  
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