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War on labor will backfire

It took fewer than 50 days for the rash of newly inaugurated Republican governors to turn their sights on their biggest boogeyman — labor unions. It’s certainly true that the Chamber of Commerce’s single-minded antipathy toward labor is a contributing factor to the attacks on unions. But there’s more than that — without labor’s financial help and boots on the ground, Democrats would have a far tougher time winning elections.

By targeting the unions, Republicans are doing the single most effective thing they can to ensure their reelection efforts and the future of their party — and they’re pleasing their corporate masters.

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But as events in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio are showing, these ham-fisted efforts to bust unions have awakened a sleeping giant. And as much as we talk about the long-term effects of the GOP’s alienation of the Latino vote, Latinos constituted just 9 percent of the electorate in 2008, compared to 21 percent from union households. 

The union vote is undoubtedly Democratic, but not monolithically so. In 2008, union households voted for President Obama by a 59-39 margin. So while the unions themselves poured significant resources into supporting Democrats, their leadership has not yet convinced their membership to steer completely clear of the GOP.

And some unions have strayed from the Democrats. In 2010, several Wisconsin police and firefighter unions endorsed Republican Gov. Scott Walker. But Walker’s fierce effort to bust the unions has opened a lot of eyes, because while Walker claims this is about balancing his state’s budget, the reality is that the public unions have conceded to the governor’s wage demands. This is about trying to destroy the unions.

One Madison protester carried a sign reading, “Born-again, fundamental Baptist pro-lifer turned DEMOCRAT!!! Thanks Scott Walker!” There’s more where that came from. Like, for example, the leadership of the Wisconsin police and firefighters unions. “I specifically regret the endorsement of the Wisconsin Trooper’s Association for Governor Scott Walker,” wrote Tracey Fuller, president of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association. That endorsement paid dividends — the union was exempted from the anti-organizing provisions of the governor’s budget. Rather than celebrate that exemption, the blatant kickback only sickened them further: “I regret being the recipient of any of the perceived benefits provided by the governor’s anointing.”

Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighter’s Association, was similarly angered by the governor’s effort to pacify his union through exemption. “The reason that we are here is because it’s important that labor sticks together,” he told Mother Jones. “There was a message from the governor’s office to conquer and divide … collective bargaining is not just for us, police and fire, it’s good for all involved. It’s a middle-class upbringing.”

It isn’t just labor that’s energized. The protests in Wisconsin have lit a fire under the broader progressive movement. As of Tuesday morning, online activists had raised $350,000 for the Wisconsin State Senate Democratic Committee — an unprecedented sum for a state-level political committee. Meanwhile, 60-70,000 protesters have camped out in Madison for days, while a Koch family effort to bus in counter-protesters for a single day fizzled at around 2,000. 

Conservatives were energized in 2009 by the healthcare debate and rise of the Tea Party, and they rode that energy to big gains in 2010. Thanks to Walker and his cohorts, we’re seeing a reversal of those dynamics, while giving Republican-leaning union members an urgent reason to vote their economic self-interest.

Moulitsas is the founder of Daily Kos.