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Opinion: Big labor could use some love

It was so quiet yesterday at the 2012 Democratic National Convention site that the media focused on street protests.

Big Labor is joining Occupy Wall Street protests to send a message to President Obama and the Democrats: If you win the election in November, it will largely be because of our efforts — and you will owe us.

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It is no secret that the labor unions are livid at the Democrats for holding their convention in North Carolina, a right-to-work state where only 2.9 percent of the workforce is unionized — the lowest in the entire nation.

The actual venue for the convention, the Time Warner Cable Arena, was constructed with non-union labor and uses non-union workers. 

Not a single hotel in Charlotte, where the convention speakers and attendees will be staying, has unionized workers.

This is why the protests are being led by the AFL-CIO, which represents 13 million workers nationwide, making it the largest federation of labor unions in the country.


Occupy Wall Street activists are joining the street protests, as are smaller labor groups, from the Southern Workers Assembly to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. 

But for all the marching, the hardball political reality is that the unions are talking to their only political friends.

The harsh truth for unions is that Republicans have successfully targeted unions and union bosses as their political enemy.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who received a rock-star reception at last week’s GOP convention, gained national attention last year when he signed a law limiting the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions to negotiate their wages and working conditions.

National unions led the recall effort and failed. They could not even get Democrats to vote for their preferred candidate to run against Walker.

From March 2011 to March 2012, membership in Wisconsin’s second-largest public employee union, AFSCME, fell by more than half.

At the moment, nearly half the states have some form of the right-to-work law prohibiting labor unions from negotiating with employers and making union dues optional. In the rest of the nation, union membership is declining, and so is the amount of money collected in union dues. The only good news for unions recently came on defense.

Voters in Ohio last year repealed the Buckeye State’s version of the Wisconsin union-stripping law. The labor unions rightly claimed credit for winning that referendum. They just wish Democratic politicians were stronger confederates in that fight.

So for all the political muscle-flexing by Big Labor at this Democratic convention, the reality is labor needs Democrats more than Democrats need labor.

That is why AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is telling convention power players the unions have the strength to deploy 400,000 volunteers in all 50 states to canvass for President Obama and other Democrats. He is reminding everyone that many of the delegates to this year’s DNC are union members. The Los Angeles Times reports that a third of California’s delegation is in a union. In the current tough era, the most the unions can do is press the Democrats to be better friends.

“If [Democratic] leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families’ interests, working people will not support them. This is where our focus will be — now, in 2012 and beyond,” Trumka said recently.

But where is the alternative to the Democrats?

In the 2010 elections, the top 10 overall campaign contributors to political candidates consisted of seven conservative groups and only three liberal ones. The liberal groups were all labor unions — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the National Education Association.

If unions stop giving money to Democrats, that will leave Republicans with a monopoly on big campaign contributions.

If there is a sliver of political hope for the union movement, it comes from the rise in income inequality.

An analysis from the Economic Policy Institute from earlier this year compared union membership and income inequality. It found that since the 1960s, as the percentage of Americans belonging to unions has declined, the share of the nation’s aggregate income going to the wealthiest 10 percent has increased. 

Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (D) has made income inequality a central theme of her campaign and is expected to make the issue a key point in her prime-time address to the convention tomorrow night.

There is a real political opportunity for Warren and the Democrats to both buck up labor unions and drive home the message of income inequality. Big Labor could use a little love right now.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.