Democrats say Gov. Scott Walker's bid to close his state's budget gap by gutting the power of the state's public employee unions, as well as similar efforts in more than a dozen states, have energized the party faithful, whose enthusiasm for President Barack Obama has waned from the heady and historic days of 2008.
The president kept his focus on small business today. But last week he called Walker's bill an "assault" on unions. Democratic Party officials have worked with the president's blessing to mobilize protests in Madison and other state capitals.
Obama's support was welcomed by union members who have had little to cheer about during his administration. Many in the Midwest are demoralized by his support for free trade agreements that they say have sent good-paying jobs overseas. They also haven't appreciated his alignment with former D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, an implacable foe of the teachers unions.
Still, the budget battles in the states have reinvigorated hopes on the national level, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
"This helps at least in the short run to mobilize and unite the Democratic base," she said.
The numbers, however, may lean in Republicans' favor.
Just 11.9 percent of American workers belonged to a union in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's a 70-year low. Membership has dropped steadily since the mid-1950s, when 35 percent of workers carried a union card.
Today, the rate of union membership among public employees is far greater than in the private sector, 36.2 percent vs. 6.9 percent.
Nearly half the states, mostly in the South, have "right to work" laws that make it all but impossible for workers to organize. They are the models for today's GOP efforts.
"There are a whole lot more taxpayers than union members," said Earl Black, an expert on Southern politics at Rice University. He predicts little sympathy for union members, even if their wages are comparable to those of private-sector workers.
"The more the public unions try to make a case for themselves, the more they point out the gap between what is ordinary practice in the private sector -- especially in times of great economic stress -- and the benefits they have been able to bargain for with Democratic politicians," he said.
John Pitney, a former GOP congressional aide who now teaches at Claremont McKenna College in California, said unions and their Democratic allies will have a tough sell to make the current controversy pay off politically in the next election.
"Their challenge is that many voters are hearing the following: 'We want you to pay higher taxes so that we can keep better pay and benefits than you have,' " he said. "Perhaps that characterization is unfair, but it's what a lot of people think. And it's not a winning message."
'A Tactical Error'
While there may be relatively few union households left, labor leaders argue that what's happening is a coordinated Republican attack on the entire middle class, noting that all wages and benefits are hurt when unions lose ground.
Indeed, Amy Dean, a longtime labor activist and co-author of "A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement," said GOP scapegoating of unions "is no less significant" than when President Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union in 1981. Organized labor has steadily declined since then. Dean called public employee and teachers unions "the last firewall" against powerful GOP interests out to destroy the unions.
"Republicans made a major tactical error in taking up this fight now," Dean said. "They've taken a base that was unenthused and uninspired by this administration and all of a sudden created an opportunity" for Obama to win over working Americans.
A new poll commissioned by organized labor and conducted by the respected Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner offered the party a glimmer of hope. It found sympathy in Wisconsin for state workers. A majority said that if workers agree to concessions on pensions and health care benefits, as the unions have said they would, than Walker should drop his plan to eliminate collective bargaining.
Given the president's need to woo disillusioned independents in 2012, it's not clear how much solidarity Obama can afford and still get re-elected. But the president will need to harmonize some if unions, the bedrock of the party's get-out-the-vote efforts, are to turn out big for him next year.
"These governors have stirred a hornet's nest," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank partially funded by labor unions. "The resulting activism will help any elected official or candidate who is in sync with the need to strengthen the middle class and sees the right to seek collective bargaining as something people deserve to have, as the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights does."
Pitney doubts the protests will matter next year. "It's hard to see how their heightened passion will have much impact," he said of the unions. "Public employees always mobilize during elections. It's what they do."
Labor also contributes heavily to Democratic candidates.
Public-sector unions gave nearly $17 million to congressional candidates in 2010, almost all of it to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That was the largest single chunk contributed by organized labor that year.
But if Walker -- who today threatened layoffs if unions don't agree to his demands -- wins, the coffers of labor's political action committees could run dry. And that would deprive Democrats, including the president, of an important source for cash.
In the meantime, both parties are using the stand-off to raise money.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint said in an e-mail to conservative supporters that the protests were a "warm-up" for 2012. He noted the millions spent in 2010 by AFSCME, the main public employee union, and warned, "They are certain to go after Republicans more aggressively than they ever have before" in 2012.
Larry Sabato, a longtime election handicapper at the University of Virginia, said both parties have been revved up over the clash, but the outcome is likely to matter more for Democrats.
"It could be a life-or-death battle for some of the unions, and they are critical to Democrats' electoral success," he said. "President Obama is trying to build back into his coalition the energy they had in 2008. If hope won't do it a second time, then fear might."
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