Why Unions Could Cost Obama the Campaign


(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.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker capitalized on this measure of disillusionment among a broad cross section of voters to successfully withstand a recall effort after he outraged unions and progressive activists by using shrewd legislative machinations to strip public-sector unions of collective bargaining rights in his state. What's worth noting is that despite being demonized as the national symbol of anti-labor villainy, according to the New York Times, Walker captured "nearly a third of union voters (presumably from private-sector unions) … and half of voters from union households who were not union members" during a recall campaign that he survived by a comfortable margin. 


An Image Problem Persists

When even union households don't feel the need to take an elected official to task for pummeling unions, this means that a fairly significant number of voters believe unions deserve a pummeling. In case the unions haven't noticed, this means that they have an image problem — a serious one. And having teachers go on strike at the start of the school year, leaving poor and working-class parents with few options or alternatives, doesn't exactly help.


In a bad economy it's an employer's market, and everyone feels undervalued and underpaid. But most of us don't have the luxury of going on strike while knowing that our jobs will probably still be there when we get back. So those who do strike are unlikely to win sympathy, particularly since so many of those affected by their striking are worse off economically than those carrying the picket signs. (I can only imagine how concerned people affected by the wave of gun violence plaguing Chicago this summer must be about the striking teachers' many demands.)

Romney has already criticized the teachers union in Chicago — and, by extension, President Obama for his close association with teachers unions in general. It should be noted that the Obama administration has also demanded greater accountability of teachers, and of teachers unions. (The president's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is the current mayor of Chicago, making the situation particularly politically fraught for the president.)


All of this means that unlike in previous elections, when unions may have been seen as nothing but a benefit for the Democratic candidate, things are more complicated this time around. Union enthusiasm could help carry President Obama across the finish line in states like Michigan, Ohio and Walker's Wisconsin, and also help him close his troubling gap with white male voters.

On the other hand, the Chicago teachers' strike and any similar union news stories could reinforce every negative stereotype some voters already have of unions, costing the president with independent voters and those who ultimately helped Walker keep his job. 


Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter