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Targeting Unions Is a Big Mistake

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Pro-union protesters hold up an American flag as they march around the the State Square in Madison, Wisconsin on February 19, 2011.

CREDIT: AP / Andy Manis

After three weeks of intense debate and protest, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.) finally pushed through a bill that strips public employees of collective bargaining rights. It’s rather ironic. Wisconsin, a state with deep roots in progressive politics has become the epicenter of a decidedly regressive agenda. And yet it’s clear now that even though Walker was able to strike a blow to unions, he and Republicans have made a mistake for which they will pay dearly.

According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, a majority of Americans oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employees and oppose cutting their pay and benefits to balance state budgets. True, labor unions aren’t necessarily popular, but the poll found that Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one.

Walker’s standing among Wisconsinites has also taken a hit as well. According to a poll from Public Policy Polling, if voters in the state could vote in the November 2010 election again, they’d elect the defeated Democratic candidate, Tom Barrett, over Walker by a 7-point margin. Much of the shift has taken place in union households; they now support Barrett by a 31-point margin, up from the 14-point margin he received in November.

Clearly public opinion in Wisconsin and across the country has shifted in support of unions. We’ve seen tremendous energy at the grassroots level, not only in Wisconsin, but all across the country. Enthusiasm, conviction, and antagonism has resurfaced that simply wasn’t on the left during the election season in 2010. Protests over the elimination of collective bargaining rights have waged in Wisconsin and spread to at least five other states: Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Florida.

Crucial parts of the Democratic coalition that may have stayed home or voted Republican in 2010 are now crowding state capitols and protesting in the streets. Walker, Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), and ilk have used their ascension to power to enfeeble a core constituency of the left. Already there are petitions circulating to recall Wisconsin Senate Republicans. Walker, too, could face a recall, but even if he survives, it’s likely he will likely face a tough re-election. Many are floating former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) as a potential opponent. The much-discussed enthusiasm gap of 2010 is no more.

The largest day of protests in Wisconsin drew more than 70,000 people. Protests in Ohio saw several thousand people flock to the capitol and several hundred marched in Iowa. And at least in Wisconsin and Iowa, protesters were joined by young people.

The question then becomes can the left sustain this level of enthusiasm or might something more consequential be taking place? David Daydensuggests that we are seeing the beginning of a new American Progressive Movement:

The activists and the politicians, the protesters and the reformers, the signature-gatherers and the people fighting in the streets, the unions and the college students, all must unite on a series of goals dedicated to the rights of the worker to have a good job and a house and a reasonable way of life for themselves. People power, basic fundamental rights and justice. These are the tenets of the movement.

The move by Walker and his supporters in Wisconsin has done what many progressives couldn’t do last year: Alarmed the American public and ignited a progressive base.

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