WASHINGTON — A year after organized labor delivered a stinging rebuke at the polls to Gov. John Kasich, Democrats Barack Obama and Sherrod Brown are hoping to ride some of that same momentum to victory this fall.
“I think in the end that coalition holds together,’’ Brown said of the various union groups that led the effort to overturn the law championed by Kasich and Republicans to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees. “If you were willing to throw police and firefighters overboard, I think the voters understand you are not fighting for the middle class.’’
Yet some analysts doubt that organized labor and its allies can repeat last year’s overwhelming success in overturning Senate Bill 5. They contend that union members are just as politically diverse as other Americans and that as late as 2010, 40 percent of union households voted for Republican candidates in the congressional elections.
They also point out that union membership in the private sector nationwide and Ohio continues to plummet. In just the past two decades, the number of unionized workers in Ohio has dipped from 1.1 million to 706,000 and that just 14.7 percent of workers in the state are represented by a union.
“I don’t see any factors on the immediate horizon that would let unions turn it around,’’ said Randall Ripley, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University. “There are still unions. And they certainly can be important in turning out workers for campaigns. But in terms of real membership gain, I’m not sure I see much hope of a resurgence.’’
Unions — particularly teachers unions — were a popular punching bag during last week’s Republican Convention in Tampa, which resulted in former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accepting his party’s nomination to face Obama.
In his keynote speech, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Democrats believe in teacher unions, “we believe in teachers.”
But in Ohio last year, bashing unions turned into a losing play when We Are Ohio, the anti-SB 5 coalition, effectively swung public opinion against the collective bargaining bill. The vote was so decisive — 62-38 percent against — that Kasich said after the vote, “It’s clear the people have spoken.”
We Are Ohio is still active, though its main thrust this year is a statewide issue that would hand over control of drawing new congressional districts from political parties to an independent panel.
We Are Ohio insists it is not endorsing individual candidates, but there is no question Obama and Brown would benefit from a strong turnout of the same coalition members that last year banded together to defeat the collective bargaining bill.
The question is whether or not that will happen.
Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters, said that both private sector and public employee unions “built a lot of bridges between our organizations’’ during that campaign, adding that “internally our members are still coalesced from last year.’’
But unions can no longer swing elections on their own, and the SB 5 fight may have had unique qualities that united disparate factions toward a common purpose. It remains to be seen whether two Democrats in a struggling economy can bring on that same enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, public employee unions may even lost some numbers even after last year’s epic victory. “We haven’t seen declines like anything in the private sector,” said Joe Rugola, executive director of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees. “But membership is beginning to peak and drop off slightly, the inevitable result of severe pressure on public budgets.’’
Unions have a history of delivering a powerful kick in Ohio politics. In 1958, Republican Gov. C. William O’Neill backed a statewide ballot issue that would have legalized right-to-work. Had it passed, an individual worker could have refused to join a union representing the rest of the workers in his company.
But labor scored an overwhelming victory, not only defeating the right-to-work plank, but elevating Democrat Michael V. DiSalle to an easy victory over O’Neill while also defeating Republican Sen. John Bricker. Two years later, the Republican national platform endorsed the union shop in the 1960 presidential election.
In the past 50 years, however, private sector unions have been fighting a ferocious headwind. Unskilled mass production jobs have been shifted abroad where wages are lower. U.S. companies have shed hundreds of thousands of jobs because they have made huge productivity gains.
“Manufacturing production is higher than it’s ever been, but it takes fewer workers to produce that,’’ said Stan Greer, newsletter editor for the National-Right-To-Work Committee.
In addition, companies in the Upper Midwest have shifted to southern states where right-to-work laws make it difficult for labor to organize unions. Greer pointed out that in right-to-work states from 2001 through 2011, wages and manufacturing output grew at a faster rate than states with union shops.
“By a wide range of measures,’’ Greer said, people are economically better off in right-to-work states.
Advocates of organized labor contend that unions have helped raise wages and led to more generous benefits for both unionized and non-unionized companies. Many companies in the United States have to offer competitive compensation packages to lure the best employees to their firms.
Amy Hanauer, executive director of Policy Matters, a labor leaning organization in Cleveland, said that “unions need to spend more of their time organizing members and articulating how unions create a fairer economy. There is a lot of frustration about stagnant wages and growth and economy and about lack of control over people’s lives.’’
“And unions really provide some tools to deal with all of those problems,’’ she said. “They enable workers to get a larger share of the wealth they are helping produce, they give workers a say over their hours and working conditions. Unions offer a lot of solutions to problems in the labor market.’’
For the near future, however, union organizers are resigned to seeing their membership numbers decline.
“We have not seen the toughest day yet for overall union membership in Ohio,’’ said Rugola, adding, “When enough Wal-Mart employees and enough employees of tech firms, insurance companies and finance corporations become disaffected with the life that they live and see the growing wealth inequity in the country, people will turn back to the trade union movement because that’s the only place they can go.’’
Emily Wilkins of the Columbus Dispatch contributed to this report.
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