By many accounts, the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election was an omen for labor, indicating its future role in and influence on American politics.
The state's Republican governor, Scott Walker, angered unions by leading a legislative push that stripped most collective bargaining rights from some public employees. Unions and their supporters fought back by passing petitions to force the election, which became something of a proxy battle between pro- and anti-union forces. Walker won, and many commentators said the result was a dire sign for labor.
"Labor is getting weaker," the Washington Post's Ezra Klein wrote the morning after the election. "And corporations, in part due to Citizens United, are getting much stronger." (The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision opened the door for corporations to spend unlimited sums to influence elections, as long as they don't give directly to candidates.)
For decades, labor unions have had significant influence on American politics and elections. They could help make or break a candidate, from the president and Congress members on down to your local town board candidates.
But across the country, union membership has steadily declined, with a pronounced drop after 1980. In the 1950's, one out of every three workers belonged to a union. In 2011, less than 12 percent did. In the 11-county area from Rochester to the Pennsylvania border, union membership has dropped from approximately 100,000 to 90,000 in the past decade, says Jim Bertolone, president of the Rochester and Genesee Valley Area Labor Federation.
Approximately one-quarter of New York's workforce is unionized, the highest rate of any state.
The shrinking number of union members could ultimately mean a loss of political influence. To counter that, labor groups are reaching out to like-minded people and organizations. For example, they've worked with clergy and progressive groups to promote a minimum wage increase, Bertolone says.
And unions have also worked alongside NAACP and the Occupy movement, he says.
"We're not just talking to our members anymore," Bertolone says. "We're reaching out to all kinds of working people and coalitions."
But unions also face a second political numbers problem: money. Simply put, they're outgunned by their wealthy, corporate opposition. The Citizens United ruling opened the door for corporations to spend massive amounts of money to influence elections. And though they can't give directly to candidates, they can buy ads and give to large political action committees which don't have to disclose their donors.
Some liberal commentators have used the money issue to push back against the unions-are-dying narrative. They say that the unions scored a victory of sorts in Wisconsin. Walker spent seven times more than his opponent, and 70 percent of that money came from out of state donors. Yet Walker won by only 8 percent of the vote. And they highlighted another recall race in the Wisconsin Senate, where a Democrat unseated the incumbent Republican to flip control of the chamber.
Bertolone says that after the Great Depression, the public stopped listening to the bankers, corporate executives, and railroad trusts. And he says he hopes that today's voters will begin to resist the current corporate influence in politics and government.
A couple of days after the election, Bertolone, who's also president of the local postal workers union, sat down to discuss the labor movement's current and future role and influence in politics. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
CITY: What did you take away from the results in Wisconsin?
Bertolone: I'm thinking that any meaning may be overplayed and overstated as part of the news cycle. Exit polling shows the majority of Wisconsin supports collective bargaining, but 70 percent were against recall unless there was some kind of malfeasance or criminal activity. And I think that's why Walker got back in: partly because they [Wisconsin voters] just thought the recall procedure was wrong.
There were tens of millions of dollars that came in from out of state groups and PAC's. That, to me, is the biggest thing that you can take out of here: that this could be a microcosm of what we're going to see on a grand scale. The majority is going to come from these Citizens United PAC's, most of which are representing the 1 percent, and that can really skew our political system.
How do unions counter the money that labor's opponents spend on political races?
When we endorse a candidate, some of our unions' PAC's will donate to their campaigns. And again, you hear all over the media how much union dues were spent in Wisconsin. It's against the law to spend union dues in these political campaigns. The members must voluntarily contribute to the political action fund. So those are voluntary contributions.
But they don't seek labor's endorsement just to get money from our PAC's. It's because of the volunteer hours that if they had to pay for, would be huge. The labor walks that we do going door to door dropping their literature, the phone banks we do, the mailings we do to our members and to union households. Karl Rove ain't going door to door; he's hiring people and he's paying for commercials. We actually go out and we try to engage our families and our members in the workplace, in our newsletters, on our bulletin boards. That is the value.
Even though, nationwide, we're about 12 percent of the workforce, and when I was growing up in the 1950's and 60's one out of three workers in this country were union, if you check the last few national elections you will see that union households turn out [to the polls] at a much greater rate than non-union households.
Union membership is declining nationally. Is the pattern the same for Rochester-area unions?
Pretty close, but I think most of our losses in manufacturing were years ago. At the same time, some of the service jobs — hospital workers, who are unionized — and public employee unions, they tended to go up. With the cutoff of federal stimulus, I think this is the third year in a row we've lost [union jobs]. Teachers have been laid off, firefighters and police have been reduced. So we're starting to see it in the public sector.
Has declining union membership had an effect on the labor movement's political strength?
[It has] on a national basis and in some states. New York still has close to 25 percent union density; we're the most union-dense state in the country. It's had some effect, but I don't think it's had a huge effect.
Can we still win? I think we've proved that. We had a special election here that was the focus of the whole country, and everybody's forgetting that, and that's Congress [member] Kathy Hochul. Republicans outnumbered Democrats in that district by more than a two-to-one margin; they [Republicans, PAC's, and interest groups] spent millions of dollars to keep [the seat] after Chris Lee had to resign, and we won it: Western New York labor, Rochester labor working together.
I can't remember in an election — and we work hard in Greece — where labor took the Town of Greece. It was close, but we actually took the Town of Greece for the Democratic candidate. [Greece is in Hochul's district.]
You haven't had a nationwide cycle since then; it's been mostly the special election-type things. That tells me that it can be done, but the bar is going to really be high because of the super money involved.
Is there anything labor can do to counteract the effects of the Citizens United decision?
[We can] organize at the grassroots and raise our own money. But it's a constant battle just to try to get what we see as the truth out there. If they reduce a public employee's pension or dozens of teachers get laid off, if you can tell me how that's improved your life or increased your income, let me know.
This will be the first full-blown election cycle with the president and Congress and everything post Citizens United. So it's going to be interesting. This election cycle I think will be a key to see how much damage they [PAC's and corporations] can do and how much power they have with that money to get people to vote against their own interests.
People are upset with public employees and their unions, seemingly because tax dollars are going to provide someone with benefits, early retirement, and a guaranteed pension. Is this an issue that unions need to address?
We have just been beaten over the head. What you've had for 30 years is cutting the money from the federal government to the states and localities as you've lowered the taxes on the rich, which puts the burden on local taxes.
Could there have been excesses in the system? Yeah. But I think what magnified that is it was taken away from everybody else. It used to be that if I got my union members another paid holiday or an extra week in vacation, non-union workers would say "Great, I've got a chance to get it." Kodak was non-union, [so] when the unions got something, to attract the most productive and the best workers, they raised the bar, too. They were competing for skilled work and good labor. Once you destroy the unions, it's different.
The rich are playing on, "If you don't have it, they shouldn't have it."
The Wisconsin recall was ostensibly about public employees' collective bargaining rights. Why should the average person care about the right to unionize?
Historically, in the 20th century, unions had been the most effective check on the excesses of the 1 percent and corporate power. And as we've been attacked and the power of unions has declined, it's not a coincidence that Glass-Steagall [a 1933 law that separated commercial and investment banking] went away, and that we deregulated energy and that gave us Enron. Has anybody's energy costs gone down since we deregulated energy?
We were the check and as our power has declined and our power to elect like-minded people has declined, they [corporations and the wealthy] can do just about anything. And they're selling this same notion from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that they shouldn't be regulated at all: "We know best, we create the jobs."
Some say unions obstruct progress. That's a common criticism tossed at the city schools' teachers union. How do you change that mindset?
It's part of the same thing of privatizing, offshoring, and deregulating everything. There are billions and billions of dollars in education, and they [the private sector] want a piece of it. That's what privatizing and charter schools are all about.
I'm sure there are people in charter schools who really want to improve education, but a lot of these charter schools are owned and run by corporations, and people like the Waltons [the family that founded and controls Walmart] are involved. They're trying to get the tax dollars and make a profit.
From post World War II to 1980, when unions had more power, this country created more wealth for more people than any society in history. As the power of unions has been attacked and reduced, all working Americans' standard of living has gone down.