Election 2012: Union Money vs. Labor Reform

This election year, Mitt Romney faces a simple challenge: if he beats Barack Obama in a handful of key swing states he wins; if not, he doesn’t. To win, he’ll need to score with independents, who make up more than 40 percent of the voting population, on issues that hit home locally and resonate nationally.

To find such an issue, Romney need look no further than the swing state of Missouri, where Senate candidate Sarah Steelman (R) has endorsed the Employee Rights Act (ERA). The ERA, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), takes the momentum for labor reform seen in Wisconsin straight to the federal level, where it provides relief and protection to the greatest number or people.

Significantly for Romney, the ERA incorporates a series of key measures that draw overwhelming support from union and nonunion households alike—at a moment when union overreach has become a national issue with special importance in many of Romney’s must-win states.

It’s a lesson underscored by the political fight in Wisconsin, where the recall election organized against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) highlighted union overreach. Fearing that Walker’s reforms could touch off a popular movement to break their powerful grip over member dues and employee destinies, Democrats and unions pulled out all the stops to take Walker down, spending some $14 million to defeat him.

Despite strong Democratic support from labor leaders, over one third of those voters from union households supported Walker. In fact, Wisconsin’s second-largest public-sector union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, lost over half of its members between March 2011 and February of this year. The American Federation of Teachers’ Wisconsin chapter lost 6,000 of its 17,000 members. It all speaks volumes that when given the chance, many employees reject forced unionization.

Wisconsin was sharply divided by the recall effort. But nationally, it’s clear that public opinion is tilted strongly in favor of comprehensive labor reform—the very issue that looms largest in the states Romney wants to win most. A poll conducted by ORC International reveals that union and nonunion households are united in support for the ERA’s reform measures, which include paycheck protection for unapproved political donations, protection from ‘quickie’ or ‘ambush’ elections, and protection from union threats and intimidation in the workplace. The ERA explicitly guarantees secret ballot elections—one of the most basic rights in a democracy—for employees voting on unionization and recertification. A right that aggressive unions have been seeking to render meaningless.

Union officials recognize the election-year dynamic—and the stakes. In Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin unions spent a total of $32,610,410—94 percent of union political spending in those states—to elect Democrats in 2010. It’s safe to say that Romney’s targeted swing states will see an even greater influx of union cash this time around.

Union leaders aren’t going for broke out of unconditional love for the president. Obama touched off a furor by backing away from the Wisconsin recall campaign, flagrantly breaking his promise to put on his “comfortable shoes” and march with his union allies. Labor leaders are spending big in this year’s key states because they know a critical mass of voters now agree that breaking their lock on power is essential to securing economic freedom for American workers and economic prosperity for all Americans.

For Mitt Romney, that makes for an excellent political opportunity. Romney should embrace labor union employees by supporting their agenda and endorsing the ERA while dismissing the union leaders for opposing workplace democracy. Voters in swing states are hungry for the kind of national leadership that Scott Walker and Sarah Steelman have offered. By taking up the mantle of the ERA, Romney can provide that leadership, showing that he’s got the back of employees, and not union leaders, across the country.