If Labor stayed home, then members reaped what they sowed

SHARE If Labor stayed home, then members reaped what they sowed

The head of a prominent labor union last week calculated that a good percentage of the pro-labor vote stayed home Nov. 4.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, as a speaker on a labor panel at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, said that union members and nonunion “working people” typically make up 20-22 percent of the electorate. He estimated that this election, where Republicans swept nationally, the number was ground down to about 12 percent.

Exit polls showed that those who did vote were primarily concerned about economic issues, he said. But Trumka blamed the candidates, saying Democrats failed to go beyond broad messages like raising the minimum wage.

“People don’t want to hear messages. They want to hear an agenda. … They punished a lot of candidates who they thought were messaging and didn’t have an agenda. And many of those candidates were Democrats,” Trumka said. “A lot of working folks stayed home because they did not hear any kind of coherent economic message that addressed their individual needs of raising wages, because that was their top priority.”

The result then, at least in Illinois and its neighbor Wisconsin, is ironic.

Both states elected governors who promised to be bigger adversaries to labor than their Democratic opponents.

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker was viewed as Enemy No. 1 to unions that saw him strip public employee bargaining power. In Illinois, voters sided for a change with Republican Bruce Rauner – but not because he set out a clear agenda. To the contrary, Rauner repeatedly dodged laying out specifics when challenged on how he would deal with the looming multibillion-dollar budget hole.

Rauner wants things union members don’t. Like an expansion to charter schools, school vouchers and moving pensions into a 401(k)-like system.

Quinn, meanwhile, had gambled his political future by laying out a budget (which had labor support) that called for a sustained increase to the state’s income tax; an increase that now will sunset by Jan. 1.

Rauner bashed Quinn for wanting to keep that tax hike. Rauner won over Quinn by 4 percentage points statewide.

But recall that Quinn, too, had pushed through a controversial pension bill last year that forced thoroughly unpopular concessions from union members.

“Clearly, Pat Quinn had some problems with organized labor. In the primary here in southern Illinois, Tio Hardiman won some counties over Pat Quinn. What was that all about?” David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Institute of Politics in Carbondale, said of Quinn’s little-known primary opponent. “The House of Labor was not happy with Pat Quinn.”

So did Illinois labor sit on its hands this election?

The question alone enraged one labor leader who asked not to be named. The leader said organized labor was given a “ridiculously insane goal,” to turn out Democrats in Cook County and Chicago.

Certainly, direct and indirect money from unions, in addition to an effective ad campaign, propelled Quinn’s candidacy, making it a close election, despite the Democrat’s rock-bottom favorability ratings and his going up against a multimillionaire with an endless pot of cash.

SEIU, SEIU Healthcare and the Illinois Federation of Teachers were out with huge field operations. But a focus on early voters didn’t translate into an upward trend in turnout. Early votes turned out to be just that — not extra votes.

Though Rauner’s camp denies Illinois fell victim to the same Republican wave that pushed the GOP into victories nationally, there is the simple fact that turnout in big urban centers was way down.

Quinn’s percentage in the city was actually greater than it was in 2010, but numbers were just down. Simply, Democrats stayed home everywhere.

Still, Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said there were plenty of bright spots for Democrats in Illinois, including overwhelming approval for ballot questions to raise the minimum wage and tax millionaires.

Montgomery credited a field operation that secured supermajorities in both chambers of the Illinois Statehouse, not to mention snatching the open treasurer’s seat with a win from Democrat Mike Frerichs. 

“If we hadn’t done the level of work we did, we could have seen the supermajorities go, in the House for sure. That’s valuable and important. We always felt if a Gov. Rauner were to get elected we would need a strong, engaged membership to deal with his agenda,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery portrayed Quinn’s operation during the campaign as realistic but pushing hard against a Republican “tsunami” that swept the country.

“They understood that this is an off-year election with a grumpy electorate, and it was going to take a real job of work to get turnout up,” he said. “We tried valiantly.”

In the end, a Republican governor who railed against “government union bosses” was the victor, and he will be the one cutting deals with the union groups who spent millions trying to defeat him.

Montgomery said he hopes Rauner realizes the difference between campaigning and governing — a distinction Rauner has made repeatedly now that he has to find compromises with Democratic leaders Mike Madigan and John Cullerton, whom he blamed in ads for “100 years of failure.”

“He was strident against working people in his campaign — in the primary and in the general election,” Montgomery said. “I would hope that he works beyond that. People in the state, they’re tired of the animosity and the partisanship where people just refuse to get stuff done. I would hope he brings that attitude to the governor’s mansion, or if he doesn’t, it’s going to be a long four years.” 

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