Is labor losing the battle for the public mind?

As I write this, it has been more than 24 hours since the network declared Scott Walker the winner over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the Wisconsin recall elections – enough time to digest the hurt and to put the loss into perspective.  Don’t despair, this will not be another lament or excuse for the outcome.  There has been plenty of that.

What is critical is what lesson was learned.

The basic message that any labor union activist or sympathizer should take from this loss is: The typical voter cares not a “hoot” about unions or collective bargaining rights.  This fact is shocking to those of us who have battled for years for worker rights.  How can it be that so few care?  Aren’t collective bargaining rights the only thing that frees a worker from the “slavery” enforced by his boss?  Of course, collective bargaining is critical to a worker’s freedom, but so few understand that.

Take the statistics from the exit polling done in the recall vote.  Among persons from union households, 38% still voted for Scott Walker.  That’s nearly four out of 10 who don’t understand that it was through collective bargaining that their households gained income, basic on-the-job rights and benefits.  (Incidentally, 61% of those from nonunion households voted for Walker.)

Even though the loss of collective bargaining rights for public workers fueled the frenzy and furor of the last 16 months, some 60% of voters did not feel such rights were important, or opposed them outright.  How could it be that after all the news coverage and hardwork by thousands of unionists across the state that so few understood or cared about the importance of collective bargaining for workers?  That’s the question that is most bothersome.

Part of the problem is that so few persons today understand labor unions and labor rights.  In the 1950s, when nearly four out of 10 households contained union workers, words like “strike,” “contract,” “scab” and “solidarity” were in everyone’s understanding.   Now, with but 11 percent of workers in unions, there are fewer labor households and less interest in unions.

Unions are hardly ever covered by the media.  It wasn’t too long ago that newspapers in most big cities – including Milwaukee – had fulltime reporters assigned to the labor beat, often with backup from other reporters.  Now the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in this town has none; in fact it doesn’t even assign one reporter to become a parttime specialist on the topic.   Despite the fact that the State Legislature passed a law making the teaching of labor history part of the state’s educational standards, schools still largely ignore the subject.

The fact is that most people in Wisconsin – and probably even more in many less unionized states – don’t know, understand or care about the loss of collective bargaining rights.

The history of labor means much more than informing people that it was only through collective bargaining that paid holidays and vacations and health insurance became a reality for ALL workers, mainly because of unionized workers exercised their collective bargaining rights.  It must show, too, that such rights are basic to helping free workers from being nothing more than paid slaves and that the loss of those rights could soon doom more and more workers to return to the horrendous and unsafe working conditions of yore!

In an election based largely on worker rights, too few understood anything about those rights.  If Tuesday night’s victory by Walker and his big business cronies proved anything, it proved unions are losing a battle for the public mind.

That fact makes it critical to develop ongoing strategies in public education, and key to that is to continue to study and disseminate the history of labor. — Ken Germanson, June 6,  2012.  Milwaukee WI.


9 thoughts on “Is labor losing the battle for the public mind?

  1. Good morning Ken,

    This was my big frustration with Barrett – I didn’t feel like he ever successfully conveyed why unions matter. He should have been hammering that home.

    Good post mortem.


  2. Hi Ken,

    The changes and losses you describe regarding the labor movement are all accurate. But didn’t unions (working people) have most success through militancy and boycotts and strikes, which seem to have fallen out of favor in the 21st century? Since most people in the 99 percent don’t belong to a union in 2012, their voices and activism need to be involved.

    It seems like an enormous job to engage the majority, but it probably is much more easily accomplished by keeping it simple and asking people what they want.

    David Giffey

  3. Pingback: Some ideas on winning the public mind for labor! « Advoken's Blog

  4. Ken – Ed Schultz mentioned some statistics following the recall election that I thought were either puzzling or scary. It seems that 38% of people who identified themselves as members of union families and about 23% of those identifying themselves as union members voted in favor or Walker. These figures were compiled by exit polls.

    • Tom: Ed’s facts are correct, and it is scary, as you say. Several factors may have been involved: First, many people who did not like Walker nonetheless felt a recall election was not appropriate, thanks to some publicity on that; secondly, many union people were likely strong believers in tax-cutting, perhaps because they may have been overboard in their mortgages; and, thirdly, they failed to understand the weakening of public sector unions would also eventually affect their own unions’ ability to bargain good contracts.

      Then, it has always been historically the fact that 30 to 40% of union members have traditionally voted Republican, some due to the peer influence of their life styles, and some due to family background. Still not a comfortable feeling when so many persons truly were voting against their own interests. Thanks for noting that.

      • Thanks for the reply, Ken. I agree with your points about the voting pattern of union members and families of union members. There was a great deal of anger about Walker and his tactics but it was not sufficient to bring about his defeat. Depending on the outcome in November Wisconsin voters may have a much different Republican candidate to think about in 2014.

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