As once-powerful organized labor loses members and influence, unions have become more focused on organizing workers and protecting their rights than on funneling money to politicians.
Donations to Democratic candidates and committees by labor political action committees were down more than 20 percent from January 2011 to June 2012, compared with the same period leading up to the 2008 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.
That decline is just one sign that the political clout of unions is waning just when they need it the most, labor specialists say. The past year has seen antiunion politicians triumph, labor laws get weaker, and public opinion of unions sour, making it unlikely that organized labor will have a big impact on the fall elections.
“This is in many ways the last gasp of the labor movement politically,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester. “The irony is that they need a victory by the White House and the Democrats to rebound, but on the other hand, because they’re so slim on resources and energies, and their public image is so tarnished, they’re limited in what they can do.”
Unions have suffered a number of political blows in the past year. Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, won a recall election prompted by his decision to limit collective bargaining for public sector unions. In California, residents of San Jose and San Diego voted to cut city workers’ pension benefits, and Indiana became the first Midwestern manufacturing state to enact a “right to work” law, preventing workers from being required to join unions or pay dues in union shops.
In Massachusetts, the state’s two largest teachers unions abandoned plans to fight legislation that reduced the role of seniority in teacher promotions and placements.
The labor movement is clearly falling out of favor, with only 52 percent of respondents to a 2011 Gallup poll saying they approved of unions, down from 75 percent in the 1950s. Nationwide, less than 12 percent of the workforce is unionized, compared with more than 20 percent in the early 1980s, according to the US Department of Labor.
With unions, particularly those representing public employees, forced to make concessions and under pressure in a weak economy to make more, organized labor has to devote less energy to politics and more to saving itself, Chaison said.
“The political agenda has to take a back seat to all that’s changing,” he said. “Most unions are just trying to tread water. It’s just protecting what they had in the past.”
The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, said it has shifted its strategy from pouring money into Democratic campaign coffers to building a broader coalition to support proworker candidates and causes. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which struck down limits on corporate and union political activities and contributions, has allowed the AFL-CIO to expand its political organizing efforts beyond union members.
Before the decision, unions had to limit spending on political activities to union members; now they can team up with organizations such as MoveOn.org Political Action to knock on doors and send out political mailings to any voter.
The Amalgamated Transit Union, an AFL-CIO member that represents transit workers across the United States and Canada, has also shifted its focus from supporting candidates and lobbying elected officials to organizing the public. With funding for public transportation under pressure, even as gasoline prices soared and ridership spiked, the union took money it had previously devoted to lobbying politicians and used it to mobilize riders.
Last summer in Fall River and New Bedford, for example, the union hired a part-time organizer to persuade bus passengers to appeal for better service. As a result, 2,000 bus riders took up the cause of 100 local union members and persuaded their mayors to add bus service, at the same time routes were being cut in other cities.
“In the past, the unions have given a considerable amount of money to candidates and parties, and that money this year, this cycle, is to some extent being invested in building the workers’ infrastructure,” said Michael Podhorzer, AFL-CIO political director. “Instead of writing checks, we’re creating a volunteer organization, an activist organization that goes on beyond election day.”
Unions, however, could be in for a reality check if the Republicans win big in November, said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. As a pollster, he views the political landscape as dots on a graph and visualizes this fall’s election as an inflection point for unions: the point at which, after dropping slowly for years, union strength either starts recovering or declining sharply. Under Republican leadership, he said — starting with Mitt Romney, who has vowed he will “stand up to Big Labor” — “that line would be in a free fall.”
Whatever the outcome of the election, the traditional shape and structure of organized labor are likely to change significantly due to weakened labor laws, said Marquita Walker, a labor studies professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Walker foresees a new breed of worker associations with fewer rules and looser boundaries. Textile workers from Bangladesh could band together with textile workers in Texas; metal workers from around the world could team up to demand more rights. Corporations are “running roughshod” over employees, Walker said, and workers are bound to band together to regain their voice.
“The current state of unionism can’t sustain itself,” she said. “They’ll diminish to the point that they’ll have to resurface in a different way.”
Follow her on Twitter