In 2010 the number of American workers in unions declined to the lowest level in 70 years. Union membership shed over 670,000 members, dropping their total membership to 14.7 million. Private sector unions lost 339,000 jobs to total 7.1 million in 2010 and public sector unions lost 273,000 members to total 7.6 million.
As union influence wanes the Democratic Party is set to lose one of its most powerful, if not most powerful special interests ally. For decades unions have stood in lockstep behind the Democratic Party. Rarely, if ever, did union leadership, public or private sector, support a GOP candidate for president. Eisenhower and Nixon did get some union endorsements but by 1980 and after the way Reagan put down the air traffic controllers strike that icy courtship was officially over. At the individual level union membership voting has traditionally leaned to the left. The most notable recent exception to this rule was in January 2010 in Massachusetts when a little known State Senator Scott Brown (R) upset Secretary of State Martha Coakley (D). Brown apparently won the union vote according to post-election polls (no exit polls were taken that day).
For the Republican Party the waning of unions influence in elections can only be considered a god-send. Republicans in dozens of states over a multitude of elections have fought against this special interest. By itself, labor has elected countless Democrats to office at the local, state and federal level. In fact, through the 80’s one of the biggest reasons why the RNC and its Congressional counterparts outraised the DNC and its counterparts consistently was not just due to the better tactics and technology of the GOP. Rather, it was because union donations to the Democratic Party dropped off as labor spent money on their own in massive quantities to elect Democrats. Until 1992 at the presidential level their spending netted little.
The kind of electoral power unions give Democrats in the modern era cannot be overstated. Since the 1990’s according to AIER unions have spent $667 million (excluding 2010) on elections. A whopping 92% of this has gone to Democrats or to indirectly helping them. This means volunteers, phone banks, getting voters to the polls, etc. The American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees by itself spent over $85 million on the 2010 election alone. No single GOP special interest group, not even the party’s interests in Wal-Street, can compete with that kind of power and cash.
Perhaps unions saw the writing on the wall before the 2010 elections. States were struggling and a resurgence of fiscal conservatism was growing around the country. Republican candidates for dozens of offices advocated slimming down the size of state government, and that of course meant public employees. Even worse for unions is even though they elected Democrats to power in 2006 and fortified Dmocratic majorities in Congress and took back the WH in 2008 their membership, public and private, continued to wane. This trend has accelerated significantly among private sector works and now is accelerating among public sector workers due to the bad economy.
GOP Governors in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and their state legislatures have made good on their promises. They have dramatically cut spending, instituted reforms in public sector pensions and benefits, reformed (or tried in OH and WI) education to implement new standards and a whole host of other laws and acts that have hurt unions. What is most startling, and perhaps most concerning for unions, is that Democratic Governors from such blue states as NY (Andrew Cuomo), Illinois (Pat Quinn) and Connecticut (Dan Malloy) have been forced to implement reforms that harm unions. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy actually went so far as to prepare to lay off 6,000 government workers if the union did not accept his new budget proposal.
What GOP Governors have done to so harm unions however is deign to weaken their political clout. One of the things that gives unions such an ability to spend on elections is in dozens of states dues are automatically deducted from members paychecks. In blue states such as the NE, and OH, MI, WI, and IN this is done on a regular basis. In turn, the union is free to use that money for whatever it wants, regardless of whether its members want their dues to go to political elections or causes. In states such as WI, OH and IN, the GOP Governors and legislatures have passed budgets and CBA reforms that destroy unions ability to do this. While unions are also worried about the loss of some of their CBA rights (rights that have helped drown states in debt for decades) unions most fear the loss of their ability to affect elections. Once that is gone there power in the current political system dissapates to nothing more then the individual voters of their members.
Unions ardently deny this but their political power is on the wane. Even as recall elections for GOP state senators in WI begin in August and Ohio SB 5 (the bill that limited CBA rights for unions) gets on the ballot for 2012 in Ohio unions continue to be on the defensive everywhere. Even in GOP states such as Idaho were the status quo reigned our GOP Governor and the legislature enacted meaningful and impacting education reform. Since 2010 the power of unions has waned more then simple math shows. Union power and muscle has ceded to the simple budgetary realities of dozens of states. While GOP Governors have been the most aggressive in dealing with unsustainable benefits and rules for unions even Democratic Governors are facing the harsh reality of governoring.
The death or loss of power for unions portends a new battle for power within the Democratic Party. Whether it is groups that represent the growing Hispanic minority in the party, the resurgent environmental movment, or the powerful Wal Street lobby that ultimately fills the vaccuum within the Democratic Party that the loss of union influence creates is unknown. For the GOP, it means a foe they have fought on many stages for decades is finally fading to the times. Unions did great things in their time for Americans and worker rights and they will in some form always affect individual races. But the power they currently wield is sure to only fade further in coming years. And for that I say amen!