Why Unions Could Cost Obama the Campaign

Blogging the Beltway: His labor support may be a boon, but strikes like Chicago's could turn voters.

(The Root) — While a teachers union in Chicago has dominated headlines nationwide because of a strike affecting 400,000 students, the union influence in another story with national implications went largely overlooked. This week, Michigan, which had been touted as a swing state this election cycle because of the discontentment of white working-class voters, lost its battleground status and was declared a state President Obama is likely to carry in 2012. A new poll conducted for the Detroit Free Press gives the president a commanding 10-point lead.

This is significant for a number of reasons: first, because Michigan is the state where Republican opponent Mitt Romney was born and raised and where his father once served as governor. So to Romney, losing Michigan is what losing Hawaii would be to President Obama: embarrassing.

I mean, if you’re selling Girl Scout cookies and your neighbors won’t even buy a box, some would say maybe it’s time to hang up the uniform. Similarly, if you can’t get your home state to vote for you, why bother? (To be fair, Romney has had more than one state he calls home, but no one is expecting traditionally blue Massachusetts to vote for him, either, despite his tenure there as governor.) 

Second, because Michigan, like Ohio, is a symbol of the Midwest, of the American working class and of the collateral damage that our faltering economy has left behind, both states seemed like prime Romney targets. So what happened?

Some will credit the general “bounce” that President Obama received after the Democratic National Convention, but that’s only part of the story. The real bounce the president received in Michigan was in terms of union enthusiasm. United Autoworkers President Bob King spoke at the convention, and the Obama administration’s efforts to save General Motors were a key message hammered throughout the programming. According to a pollster quoted by the Detroit Free Press, “When the whole theme for the Democrats is Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive … that’s got to help in Michigan and Ohio and a couple other states as well.”

And therein lies the problem for Democrats, and the Obama campaign in particular.

Sympathy and Resentment Go Hand-in-Hand

Americans are a study in contradictions and hypocrisy on many political issues, and unions is one of them. Most of us want the basics from our employers: fair hours, wages, benefits and a safe work environment, but we also don’t want the efforts of others fighting for the same things in their work environments to cost us too much as taxpayers or consumers — or, frankly, to inconvenience us at all.

I include myself in this category. I didn’t have a problem in theory with New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority workers striking in 2005. But I also didn’t want to walk to work in winter when the time came, and didn’t really care whose fault it was that my colleagues and I were being forced to do so.