August 2, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
Philadelphia, PA – The industrial Midwest has been one of the country’s labor strongholds for generations. It was the scene of the 1880s fight for the eight-hour day and the great sit-down strikes of the 1930s, and unions still represent a significant share of its workforce. But in the last six years, its five core states have all elected hardline anti-labor Republican governors.
In Wisconsin, Scott Walker gutted collective bargaining for public-sector workers. In Illinois, Bruce Rauner has declared war on state workers’ pensions and called union teachers “virtually illiterate.” Indiana’s Mike Pence put his own money into repealing the state’s prevailing-wage laws. In Michigan, Rick Snyder orchestrated state takeovers of local finances that have decimated Detroit’s schools and poisoned Flint’s water. Ohio’s John Kasich is considered a moderate because he backed off after the state’s voters overwhelmingly repealed his 2011 law that slashed state workers’ bargaining rights.
Three of the five states—Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin—have enacted so-called “right to work” laws banning the union shop. Pence, now the GOP candidate for Vice President, called the Indiana Supreme Court’s upholding of the law in 2014 “a victory for the freedom of every Hoosier in the workplace.”
So why do voters in these states elect such candidates? “How we got to this, I don’t know,” Indiana AFL-CIO President Brett Voorhies told LaborPress in mid-July. “A lot of our members are just fed up with government in general.”
Indiana unions try to educate their members about the issues in their interests, he added, but the Democrats’ recent record can be hard to overcome. “Bill Clinton started screwing workers with NAFTA,” he says. “That’s when our manufacturing started going down.” This year, he’s supporting Hillary Clinton “100 percent,” but has his doubts about her position on trade deals.
Walker, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin told LaborPress on the Democratic National Convention floor July 26, has won elections partially because “he didn’t share his true agenda” when he first ran in 2010, and partially because “he was cynically successful in dividing working people against each other, whether it was union workers and nonunion workers, or public-sector workers and private-sector workers.”
The question is highly relevant in this year’s election, because if Donald Trump has a road to the White House, it likely would run through the Midwest and Pennsylvania, paved with the votes of strapped and aggrieved working-class voters. Scott Walker, Baldwin added, “convinced people that he was not the enemy, but other workers were the enemy. And Trump is doing that in his campaign also. Dividing hardworking people in America against each other.”