Unions Rethink Strategy After Election Losses

Most of the candidates public-sector unions spent time and money supporting this fall were defeated, prompting leaders to question the effectiveness of endorsing any candidates at all.
by | November 21, 2014

After receiving a drubbing in this fall's elections, some union officials want to rethink the labor movement's approach to politics.

Having long tied their fortunes to Democrats -- and having seen Democrats beaten badly, particularly at the state level -- at least some union leaders are thinking about returning to the basics of providing professional services to members and emphasizing issues, rather than candidates.

"Unions have to be aggressively pushing for the issues we really believe in," said Gabe Morgan, a Service Employees International Union state director in Pennsylvania, referring to the success of minimum wage increases on several state ballots.

Noting that his union helped unseat Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, Morgan said, "If we would have relied on the Democratic Party to take a real position on so many issues important to where Americans are, we would have lost here, too."

The Pennsylvania governor's race was a rare bright spot for unions and the Democrats. Unions failed to take out targets such as Scott Walker, Sam Brownback and Rick Snyder, the Republican governors of Wisconsin, Kansas and Michigan, respectively.

"Half the states have complete Republican control," said Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. "That should scare the hell out of the unions. In most places, they haven't invested in those relationships."

Unions suffered losses at all levels of government. Only three of the 14 Senate candidates endorsed by the American Federation of Government Employees ended up winning. In San Jose, Calif., the mayoral election turned into a referendum on pension cuts, with the candidate backed by the police union coming up short.

Labor didn't lose everywhere. Unions helped turn back a well-financed proposal in Phoenix that threatened pensions for municipal employees. In Missouri, a ballot measure that would have mandated the use of standardized tests in teacher evaluations also lost.

But unions will have less impact now in states where issues such as pension cuts and charter school and voucher expansions are expected to be a prominent part of the debate next year.

Bill Raabe, a former top National Education Association official, worries that in response unions will "double down" on old strategies, only being "good at saying 'no' to change.

"For too long, unions (school employee unions, too) have relied on past successful strategies to deal with their current realities and their hoped-for futures," Raabe wrote in a post on the Education Intelligence Agency blog. "It is time for them to rethink how they operate."

They are having to navigate difficult terrain. Not only are many Republicans hostile to them, but Democrats have been unreliable friends in many cases when it comes to issues such as pensions and so-called education reform proposals.

"That's the real political challenge for labor going forward," said Jake Rosenfeld, author of the recent book What Unions No Longer Do. "Do they expend resources backing fair weather friends who express support at election time, and turn against them when it's time to make policy?"

Labor doesn't have much power at election time anyway, since the percentage of households with union members has long been in steep decline. Last year, 11 percent of workers in the U.S. belonged to unions -- less than half the share 30 years earlier.

Public-sector unions have held steady -- 35 percent of government workers belong to unions -- but are clearly under attack now.

"Labor's ability to turn people out and get members to vote was always stronger among private-sector members," said Rosenfeld, who teaches sociology at the University of Washington. "In the public sector, that kind of mobilizing ability was not that large."

What public-sector unions can do is provide money to candidates. Unions devoted $116 million to politics during this last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But that meant they were still outspent by 10-to-1 by business groups and made up a small fraction of the estimated $6 billion spent on congressional and state races this year.

"With all the new sources of money available to candidates, their comparative advantage has just been diluted," Rosenfeld said.

He agrees with Morgan, the SEIU official, that unions can enjoy success building alliances that help promote causes such as minimum wage increases. But those campaigns, however successful, typically don't directly address labor's central problem.

Labor's declining membership -- along with open attacks on collective bargaining and other labor rights launched by some Republicans -- makes it difficult for unions to maintain their traditional clout.

"The currency of politics is that you can win elections," said Petrilli, the think tank president. "'If you cross the unions, you'll lose your job' -- that's a powerful message and they've been able to use that for decades, but they're losing that."