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Monday, Nov 7, 2011, 11:19 am

Crucial Elections in Ohio & Iowa Underscore Democrats’ Dependence on Labor

BY Roger Bybee

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Governor of Iowa Terry Branstad speaks during the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's 2011 Governors Summit on June 20 in Washington, DC.   (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Two critical elections will take place in Ohio and Iowa tomorrow, and each should forcefully remind Democratic leaders that labor plays an indispensable role in the party, says Chris Townsend, political director of the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers (UE) union.

Union members are working feverishly in Ohio for a referendum overturning the state’s new law denying union rights to public employees. Their counterparts in Iowa are fighting hard in a crucial Senate election that will determine the balance of power in a state where ultra-Right Gov. Terry Branstad is eager to emulate his anti-labor colleagues in Wisconsin and Ohio.

After driving nearly 3,000 miles over the last 12 days to direct the UE’s efforts in Virginia elections and enter the battles in Ohio and Iowa, Townsend is more persuaded than ever of the Democratic Party’s intense dependence on labor. “Without labor, the Democratic Party is nothing,” he declared.

The union movement has traditionally provided the Democratic Party with a populist economic message—one that resonates strongly with the “1% vs. 99%” rhetoric used by the Occupy movement—along with foot soldiers to win over and turn out voters, and, of course, funding.

Yet, the labor movement's financial support is becoming less meaningful. While the Service Employees union and AFSCME (public workers union) are big Democratic funders, labor was out-spent by a margin of 15-1 in national races in the 2008 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The imbalance will grow even larger if public employee unions' fundraising efforts are crippled by anti-union laws like Wisconsin’s, as Sen. Scott Fitzgerald boasted  to FOX News. And obviously, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision lifting all limits on corporate spending—which AFL-CIO supported, ironically—effectively dilutes labor's relative clout.

The labor wars of the Midwest will escalate to a higher stage on Tuesday in Ohio, where unionists are excited about the growing momentum behind the campaign to repeal Republican John Kasich’s law to effectively stamp out public-employee union rights.

Kasich’s law, kniown as SB 5, goes even further than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s new law passed last March and upheld by the Supreme Court in June.

The new Wisconsin law makes public-employee unions effectively inoperable, burdening them with annual certification elections requiring a majority of potential voters, an end to dues checkoff, limiting negotiations to already-capped pay increases, among other features. Although Walker’s law exempts police officers and firefighters, Kasich’s law, covers all public employees.

POLLS ARE ENCOURAGING, BUT...

Ohio unionists and the We Are Ohio coalition have waged a lengthy battle that included demonstrations at the State Capitol, numerous rallies and petitioning that gathered more than 1.2 million signatures to challenge SB 5, Townsendsays. U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown and U.S. Representatives Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich have been vocal in their support for workers' rights.

We Are Ohio supporters have been heartened by recent surveys by Public Policy Polling, which shows a 56-36% edge for repeal, and a Quinnipiac poll giving repeal a 57%-32% edge.

But some in labor have urged caution and called for intensified vote-gathering efforts  because of the difficulty of reliably polling about ballot questions. This is particularly true because the Republicans had the power to word the question with the result, as the Chicago Tribune put it, "To further confuse matters, a “yes” vote on Issue 2 would count as a vote in favor of keeping the law, while a “no” vote would be a vote in favor of repealing it.

The UE’s Townsend is heartened by the polling numbers, but is dubious about the ability of pulling off such an enormous defeat. “I think we will win, but not by 20-25 points,” he predicted.

While labor and its allies have reportedly out-spent the anti-union forces, the pro-corporate side has been boosted by an injection of cash from the billionaire Koch brothers, major players behind the scenes in Wisconsin’s union war earlier this year. The Tribune reported, “Also assisting in the effort to gin up support for the law is Americans for Prosperity, an Arlington, Va.-based group founded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. The group spent $28,000 on phone-banking and radio ads, a paltry sum compared with the $40 million it claims to have spent helping elect Republicans in the 2010 midterm election.”

As with Walker, the anti-union push by Kasich has come at a substantial political cost. Kasich’s favorability rating has plummeted to 37 percent. Walker will also likely face a recall election sometime in early 2012, and the FBI has been looking into his 2010 campaign operation, giving several of his aides immunity from prosecution.

WILL IOWA FOLLOW OHIO AND WISCONSIN'S ANTI-UNION LEAD?

Despite the political damage suffered by Walker and Kasich, Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad is aiming to head his state down the same extreme anti-union path. Until recently, Republican domination of Iowa government was prevented only by a razor-thin 26-24 Democratic majority in the State Senate. The Senate Democrats were thus able to block the most extreme measures coming from the Republican-dominated Hoouse and Branstad.

But then Branstad approached Democratic State Sen. Swati Dantikar, a “Blue Dog"-style  conservative Democrat, and offered her a plum position paying $137,00 a year to serve on the Iowa Utility Commission, which she accepted. If Dantikar is replaced with a Republican, the GOP and Democrats will each have an equal number of senators. Under Iowa law, majority status is granted to each party on a rotating basis each week, meaning the Republicans will be able to pass anything they desire during weeks when they hold majority powers.

Branstad’s agenda for labor in this state, which already burdens workers with a “right-to-work” law banning the union shop, includes revoking the dues checkoff for public employees, reducing the issues about which they can bargain and pushing more healthcare costs on to workers.

“The entire balance of government entirely hinges on control of this Senate seat,” stressed Townsend.

With the stakes high in the race to replace Dantikar in Iowa’s Senate District 18 near Cedar Rapids, labor and the state Democratic Party have been working closely to help elect Liz Mathis, a former TV newscaster. “The labor folks have really come through with a great effort,” reported Townsend. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort for the AFL-CIO, the Democratic Party of Iowa, and our members.“

While Mathis' opponent, Republican Cindy Golding, has been stressing gay marriage and other cultural issues, Mathis—who openly supports the right to gay marriage—is focusing on job creation and other economic issues. "Mathis has a chance only because of labor and working people,” Townsend says, adding:

“This Iowa race is important because it could mean the continuation of the labor war in the Midwest."

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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