The end of unions?

at 06:30 AM ET, 06/11/2012

The only political entity that might have had a worse week than President Obama last week was the public sector union.

For the third time in 14 months, a full-throated attempt from labor to exact retribution on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) for curtailing collective bargaining rights for public sector unions fell flat.
FILE - In this Jan 25, 2012 file photo, protestors show off signs in the rotunda of the State Capitol Wisconsin prior to Gov. Scott Walker's (R) state of the state address in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

And it’s got some writing the obituary of the public sector union, arguing that it will soon join the private sector union in the realm of the politically irrelevant.

Which makes sense in some ways, and doesn’t in others.

As Obama noted in a rather inartful way on Friday, the economic recession has hit government employees harder than the private sector. It’s natural during time of austerity for politicians to target public employees for cuts and create conflict; the unhelpful side effect if you’re labor is that this occurs at a time when those same cutbacks are also creating less union members overall.

So it’s not surprising to see the unions at a weak point right now.

But it’s also pretty clear that the public sector union’s political capital is heading in one direction – down.

Over the last several decades, unions have increasingly fallen out of favor with the American public. While Gallup polling showed 72 percent approved of unions in 1936 and 60 percent did in 2007, that number has since dipped below 50 percent.

That means that, when these unions are embattled, there are fewer people ready to stand up for them. The result, as we saw in Wisconsin and on ballot measures in San Jose and San Diego stripping public employees of pension benefits, is that efforts to fight back don’t have as much might behind them.

The same Gallup poll in August showed that 55 percent of Americans thought unions would be weaker in the future than they are today, versus 20 percent who thought they’d be stronger. Americans aren’t fortune-tellers, of course, but they can spot a trend.

And lastly – and perhaps most importantly – union membership continues to decline.

While about one-quarter of Americans were in unions in the 1960s, that number has fallen by half, to just 11.8 percent in 2011. While 37 percent of public sector employees belong to a union, just 7 percent of private sector employees are still in unions — a reversal of the historical balance between the too.

The public sector union’s lifeline, though, is the will of the public itself. While Americans may be less approving of unions than they were in the past, they are still in favor of the concept of unions.

A Fox News poll conducted after the brouhaha in Wisconsin early last year showed that 60 percent of Americans said unions are necessary to protect workers. And when Ohio’s Republican governor stripped his public employees of collective bargaining rights, voters overturned that decision with a ballot amendment; so it’s not like unions haven’t notched any wins in the last couple years.

When you combine that with the fact that about half of Americans still approve of unions (52 percent approve, 42 percent disapprove in the most recent Gallup poll), it’s not hard to see how they will stick around. The question for now seems to be what role they will play.

The election in Wisconsin was certainly an embarrassment for unions – capped off by the concurrent votes in San Jose and San Diego and the fact that nearly half of people who live with union members voted for Walker.

It may also have the unhelpful effect of making other Republican governors and legislatures bolder in their efforts to fight unions. And as we saw in Wisconsin, it doesn’t take much to cause union membership to take a nosedive.

But the fact that unions still have a the support of at least half the American people is hardly insignificant and means this is more likely to be a time of reorganization and change rather than a death knell.

Obama super PAC, SEIU launch $4 million ad campaign: Speaking of the unions still being relevant; the Service Employees International Union is up teaming with Priorities USA, the top super PAC supporting Obama, for a $4 million Spanish-language ad campaign.

As the Post’s Felicia Sonmez reports, the ad will run in the three Latino-heavy swing states: Colorado, Florida and Nevada. It is being billed as one of the biggest Spanish language efforts in the history of presidential politics.

The ad features video of Romney speaking in English with Spanish speakers responding to what he says. (All the ads can be found here.)

Fixbits:

George P. Bush says his father, Jeb Bush, would serve as Romney’s vice president if asked.

Walker’s advice to Romney.

Rick Santorum has yet to release his delegates to the Republican National Convention.

Santorum says he’s afraid Ron Paul’s delegates will initiate a platform fight.

Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) Senate campaign is up with two new ads featuring his wife, former Boston TV reporter Gail Huff.

Brown’s opponent, Elizabeth Warren (D), is up with her own ad playing up her message of corporate reform.

Must-reads:

Ohio, other toss-up states, see job growth, but national downturn may boost Romney this fall” — AP

Obama’s gaffe will be fodder in general election” — Chris Cillizza, Washington Post

In a world of super PACs, Mitt Romney rules” — Michael Kranish, Boston Globe

 
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