Few paid much attention when it happened, but earlier this month — and not for the first time — the Michigan chapter of the Teamsters union endorsed Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, now a candidate for governor.
Now serving his ninth term, Rep. Hoekstra has regularly been supportive of the Teamsters in the heavily unionized Great Lakes State. But on a host of other issues – the Obama push for health care reform, for example, which he avidly opposed – the congressman’s record has been much more likely to earn him the 90 percent lifetime approval rating he enjoys from the American Conservative Union than the warm embrace of big labor.
Roughly 92 percent of the estimated $75 million that organized labor spent on federal candidates in the 2008 election cycle went to Democrats. Thus the nod to Hoekstra underscored how the landscape is shifting for big labor.
The unions have scored an impressive string of victories on various policy agenda items, most recently including the recess appointment by President Obama of Craig Becker, the former counsel to the Service Employees International Union, to the National Labor Relations Board; but union membership, in broad historical terms, has been declining. Some 15 million Americans belong to a union, but unions represent only 12 percent of the American workforce — down from a peak of nearly 36 percent in 1953.
“The most recent report from the Department of Labor showed that more union members are public employees than private sector employees,” noted Michael Barone, columnist for the Washington Examiner and co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. “So, in effect, the union movement has become a movement in large part of taxpayer-supported workers, whose leaders can put a lot of money into elections and try to elect state legislators, members of Congress, who are favorable to giving their members more money.”
Toward that end, the AFL-CIO is quietly mobilizing its 11.5 million members to get out the vote in more than two dozen battleground states. “It’s going to be a big effort,” Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO, told Fox News. “It’s started already. We’re kicking off in places like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, New York. There’s going to be a lot of activity a lot of political activism going on.”
But the unions’ power to shape election outcomes may not, like their membership, be what it used to be. In Arkansas’ Democratic Senate primary this spring, big labor spent an estimated $10 million to knock off incumbent Blanche Lincoln, only to see her prevail over the unions’ preferred candidate, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.
Likewise, G.O.P. gubernatorial candidates Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie won tough elections in Virginia and New Jersey, respectively, last November — just eight months after Barack Obama, the most pro-union president in modern times, was sworn into office.
A Pew Research Center poll conducted in Feburary, when the national unemployment rate stood at 9.7 percent, found Americans evenly split between favorable and unfavorable views of unions.
“Workers understand,” said conservative UCLA economics professor Lee Ohanian, explaining the decline in un ion membership. “They would like to have the opportunity to call their own shots. They can’t do that with unions. And businesses understand that if they get unionized then that extremely limits their ability to hire workers.”
“If the same percentage of union workers were unionized today as were in the early 1980s,” countered David Madland, director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, “we think that workers would have $50 billion more in their pockets….Think of what $50 billion in demand would do, that was sustainable, coming from the private sector, not from government.”
The institution many regard as the unions’ opposite number in the political arena – the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — is also mobilizing its legions this year, with plans to spend an estimated $50 million on political races and related efforts.