Unions and Young People: A Winning Combination for 2012?

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The successful effort to roll back anti-union legislation in Ohio points to a possible future for the Occupy Wall Street movement

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In the wake of a significant electoral victory in Ohio Tuesday, unions and their supporters are energized and eager to flex their newly honed political muscles. But the path to greater electoral clout in 2012 could lie in a partnership with young voters and followers of the Occupy movement.

It may seem like an odd pairing: Grizzled and battle-scarred union members, many of whom have voted Republican in the past and are more socially conservative, and free-spirited Millennials more comfortable texting than organizing.

But the two groups have a lot in common, chiefly concerns about their own economic futures and income inequality in this country, which are also the central themes of the Occupy movement.

"The basic message that Occupy Wall Street has -- that people are fed up with the top one percent getting everything -- it resonates with union members and young people," says AFL-CIO Political Director, Mike Podhorzer, in an interview from Ohio on election night.

Both groups have been victims of globalization, outsourcing, downsizing and the recession and are reeling from the nation's tough economic conditions, as are millions of other Americans.

Young people between the ages of 18-24 have unemployment rates above 17 percent -- among the highest levels of unemployment of any demographic group in the country.

And unions have seen their already thinned ranks shrink even more recently. In 2010, union membership was down to just under 12 percent of all workers in the U.S., its lowest level in 70 years. In the mid-1950's, the unionization rate was 35 percent of all workers.

But what if labor unions and young people joined together on issues beyond repealing Senate Bill 5, the law to restrict union rights in Ohio? Such an alliance has the potential to create a powerful political force. Unions have the experience, organization, money and political know how. Young people have the numbers and the passion.

"The primary goal of unions is to create good paying jobs and that's something that young people can't find these days," says Podhorzer.

Polls have shown a majority of Americans are sympathetic to the central message of the Occupy protests -- that Wall Street brokers and big banks don't do what is best for the rest of America. But they are also somewhat skeptical of the protestors, who seem a bit scruffy and unfocused.

Pew Research Center polls show most Americans agree with the statement that "this is a country in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." And a growing number of people have begun to see the U.S. as a nation divided into two groups: the "haves" and the "have nots."

Our financial system and tax code serve those at the top but penalize the middle class and have increased the income gap between rich and middle-class wage earners to the largest disparity in 40 years. Last year, CEO pay at Fortune 500 companies was up an astronomical 24 percent and corporate profits were up 81 percent. But most Americans -- the 99 percent -- aren't feeling the benefits of this economic success.

That lack of fairness is at the heart of the Occupy movement and may also have been the driving factor in the repeal of the anti-union law in Ohio, through no votes on Issue 2 Tuesday. It's clear by the overwhelming 61-39 percent vote that many voters felt what was being done to the unions wasn't fair.

There was also a sense that the Ohio law, which would have severely restricted collective bargaining rights for the state's 360,000 public employees, went too far. Unions raised more than $30 million to repeal SB 5, passed by the Republican legislature earlier this year without a single Democratic vote.

State Senator Bill Seitz, who was one of six Senate Republicans to vote against SB 5, likened the fight to "The Battle of Little Big Horn" and the passion of the union opponents to the Native American tribes who annihilated General George Custer and his U.S. Cavalry troops in 1876 while attempting to defend their way of life.

Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio Republicans said SB 5 was needed so local and state governments facing huge deficits could renegotiate public employee contracts and make the cuts necessary to balance their budgets. But the law went much further in an obvious attempt to weaken unions by making it harder for them to collect dues and organize.

Columbus police sergeant Jerry Cupp is a former Republican who voted for Kasich last fall. "Now we're all kicking ourselves in the ass because of what these guys have done to us..." he says. "To try to put the debt of the state of Ohio on the backs of the police and firefighters and teachers...It's not about the budget at all, and we know that. It's about payback time."

Because Republicans see both unions and young people as important Democratic constituencies, they have tried to weaken their influence since activists and union members took over statehouses around the country last fall. Another thing that unites the two groups: this pushback.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that more than 700 bills targeting unions were introduced in 2011. Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, New Jersey and other states controlled by Republicans have sought to curb the power of unions with legislation. But those efforts have drawn a backlash. In Wisconsin, recall efforts succeeded in removing two state senators who voted for the anti-union legislation and a recall effort has been launched against Gov. Scott Walker.

Heather Smith, the president of Rock the Vote, which helps register and organize young voters, says she believes the massive protests in Wisconsin earlier this year gave birth to the Occupy movement.

"Occupy supporters have talked about Wisconsin as an inspiration. This has been building for a while. This coalition of young people and labor is an organically developing movement," she says.

In attempt to limit young voter and minority participation, more than 40 pieces of legislation are pending in state legislatures according to Smith.

Seven states have passed photo ID laws for voting and at least a dozen others have introduced bills to limit voter registration and reduce early voting opportunities.

However, Maine voters on Tuesday rejected an effort by the Republican legislature and governor to do away with same day voter registration which the state has had for decades. The most egregious example of trying to infringe on voting rights was in New Hampshire where Republicans attempted to prevent college students from voting in the state. The Supreme Court has already decided this issue and ruled that college students are entitled to the same presumption of residency as any other citizen. But the GOP bill would have required them to vote in their home states by absentee ballot, even if they lived in New Hampshire twelve months a year. The legislation would also have eliminated the state's same-day voter registration. House Speaker William O'Brien said college students were guilty of, gasp, "voting liberal." But the legislation was voted down by the New Hampshire legislature.

Thanks to a new Texas law, you can only vote in that state if you have a Texas issued driver's license, a concealed gun permit or a passport -- no student IDs even from state schools count.

The question now is whether unions will employ the same level of ferocity to campaign for Barack Obama and other Democrats in 2012 as they used against SB 5 and if young people and Occupy supporters will join them.

Generations X and Y turned out in force to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 but have become disillusioned with his inability to bring about the fundamental change he promised and have faded back into the woodwork, not voting in large numbers in 2010.

"There's increased cynicism about politics -- it's dirty, it's frustrating... They see their voices being trumped by corporate interests. Young people are not feeling like they're being heard or valued in the political process," says Smith.

Ken Weber is a senior at the University of Colorado in Boulder who supported Barack Obama in 2008. He does not think his friends are as engaged or interested as they were in 2008, something that is supported by Pew Center findings.

The share of Millennials who say that they personally care a good deal about who wins the 2012 presidential election is down more than 10 points from four years ago, according Pew.

Millennials, who are 18 to 30, have voted more Democratic than older voters in the last four national elections. But they are also more disillusioned than older voters. Shortly after the 2008 election, 81 percent of Millennials said Obama made them feel hopeful, while 80 percent felt proud. Today, only about half of Millennials say Obama makes them feel hopeful or proud, according to Pew.

Four years ago, when Weber was a freshman, he says, "We were talking every day about the election and Obama. There was a lot of excitement and passion... He came in with such high expectations -- and he hasn't lived up to all of those."

Weber says he often hears from his friends that "they don't vote because the political system is corrupt and they think it's a waste of time."

As a result of this feeling of disappointment, Smith has a big concern that youth turnout next year will not match 2008 levels. "I do believe it's a harder environment but for that reason it feels even more important."

Union members have a good record of voting, but in recent years it has often been for Republicans. In 2010, Democrats suffered huge losses among white blue-collar voters who voted Republican by an almost two to one margin.

Jon Harvey, a firefighter in Middletown in southwestern Ohio, estimates that 70 percent of the firefighters he knows voted Republican in 2010 but he thinks there's been a sea change thanks to Republican anti-union efforts. "What I'm hearing now is I'll never do it again," he says.

Scott Clinger, a Columbus policed officer, told me the day after the Ohio election, "I bet Obama is just laughing at John Kasich saying 'You did the best thing you could ever do for me.'"

Clinger predicts the coalition that defeated SB 5 will hold. "It's going to be a force in the future...It's not going to just die off. I never saw all of these groups band together like they did here."

The AFL-CIO's Podhorzer called the Ohio vote "the first test for whether or not there can be a coalition of young people, workers and people of color for 2012."

This marriage could provide the answer to the question -- what is the future of Occupy Wall Street?

Image credit: AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

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Linda Killian is a Washington journalist and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her book The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents was published in January 2012 by St. Martin's Press.

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