Let me start by saying that joining a union in the workplace is a basic human right. That's not just my opinion, it is a statement of fact. That right is found in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 with the United States voting yes.
Unions have fallen on hard times in recent years in America, and their declining fortunes have been a significant factor in the Democratic Party's struggles. Some of organized labor's wounds were the doing of powerful and vengeful enemies; others were self inflicted.
Unions have had a tendency to be insular, often not talking to and working with each other much less communities of likeminded non-union people. That's curious, considering the value organized labor places on solidarity and brotherhood.
I grew up on a dairy farm in Clark County. My dad had an 8th-grade education. In his view of the political world, as he told me more times than I can count, the Democrats were the party of the poor and the Republicans were the party of the rich.
If he were alive today, he would not be able to make heads or tails of the tea party movement. He would be confounded by the fact that some of the poorest Americans are among the Republican Party's most faithful supporters. That's not conjecture, it is fact. In the 2010 election for governor, Scott Walker carried eight of the 10 counties with the lowest per capita income. He lost in Menominee County, where only 752 votes were cast on the Indian reservation. And he narrowly lost Crawford County. But overall Walker won by a 13-percentage-point, 8,400-vote margin out of just over 66,500 votes in Wisconsin's 10 poorest counties.
In Clark County, one of the state's five poorest, Walker got 61% of the vote. For years Clark County was represented by Frank Nikolay, one of the truest progressives ever to serve in Wisconsin's legislature. Nikolay was followed by Tom Harnisch, a moderate Democrat. Today, Clark County is represented by a rabid right winger – tea partier and ALEC co-chair Scott Suder.
A few years ago, Tom Frank wrote the book What's the Matter with Kansas? It could just as well have been called What's the Matter with Clark County? As with Frank's bestseller, Clark County is full of stories that help explain its journey from a hotbed of progressive politics to a mainstay of turn-back-the-clock conservatism.
When I was a teenager, the farm economy was bottoming out and one of our neighbors was facing foreclosure. Just before the family was thrown off their land, the farmer was found hanging from a rafter in a shed. His wife and an adult son were left to pick up the pieces of their shattered life. There was no union standing in solidarity with that family as their way of life – and husband and father – was taken from them.
Today, Clark County is full of people who've never known the brotherhood of a union. They've only grown full of resentment for having to pay for others to have things they don't have themselves. And they have turned their county red. They've drunk the tea.
All of which leaves the Democratic Party trapped. The party of the poor no longer has the poorest in our society with them. The unions that supplied them with a power base have been under siege, first in the private sector and now in the public. With union power dwindling, and union money drying up, Democrats now get way more of their campaign money from business interests than from labor unions. The combination of their reliance on the 1% for donations and their allegiance to what's left of the unions is alienating them from the poor in places like Clark County. Democrats will never win in the rich counties like Ozaukee, Waukesha and Washington. Rock, meet hard place.
Republicans have built a rich-poor governing coalition. And not just in Wisconsin. In Kansas. And all across the country. For Democrats to mount a counteroffensive that has any kind of lasting impact, they can't just focus on what – or who – they want to stop. They'll have to think long and hard about where they want to start.