Democrats Can't Take Labor Vote for Granted

The recent split in the ranks of organized labor has enormous implications for the Democratic Party and for American politics in general. It’s worth taking a detailed look at what could happen as a result.

Several large unions have broken from the AFL-CIO (search), arguing that labor should concentrate more on recruiting members and less on politics. Since the bulk of labor’s money has gone to Democratic candidates in recent years, this will have an impact on Democratic campaigns.

But the impact goes far beyond dollars.

The Democratic Party has relied heavily on organized labor to provide the ground troops to run campaigns and, more importantly, the votes necessary to carry key industrial states in presidential campaigns.

It is the votes, particularly of white blue-collar organized workers, that have kept the last two presidential elections close. If labor distances itself from the Democratic Party or doesn’t run as strong a get-out-the vote effort as in the past, these votes will be missed much more than the money.

Each year that I served as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus (1999 to 2003), Steve Rosenthal (search), the political director of the AFL-CIO, made a presentation to the caucus about the impact of the votes of union households in key states.

The figures were dramatic. Union households turned out more heavily (as a percentage of registered voters) than non-union households, and union households voted much more Democratic than their non-union neighbors.

This was particularly true of white union members who have been one of the last groups of white voters to continue to give majority support to Democrats.

E.J. Dionne (search), writing in the July 29 Washington Post, underscored this point by looking at 2004 election results in Pennsylvania and Michigan — two states John Kerry won against George W. Bush.

According to Dionne, Kerry won union households in Pennsylvania 62 to 37 percent while losing non-union voters 55 to 45 percent. The story in Michigan was similar. Kerry won the union vote 61 to 37 percent, while losing the non-union vote 55 to 44 percent.

Equally dramatic was the percent of votes that came from union households — 30 percent in Pennsylvania and 37 percent in Michigan.

Thus, in those two key industrial states, union households had a heavy percentage turnout and once they got to the polls, voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

Labor has been losing membership in recent years and needs to revitalize its organizing efforts. The best example of labor’s woes is that the largest company in the United States — Wal-Mart — is not unionized.

One can make a compelling argument that more money is needed for basic organizing; however, any de-emphasis on political activity on the part of labor could have major implications on the outcome of presidential and congressional campaigns.

It is not inevitable that the Democratic Party will suffer from a change in labor’s priorities, but Democrats can no longer rely on labor as a crutch to produce the blue-collar white votes necessary for victory.

Democrats must re-learn how to campaign in this swing constituency and once again become a party that stands for a strong America, at home and abroad. Democrats must stand for economic fairness and opportunity.

National and local Democratic leaders will no longer just be able to rely on organized labor to turn out blue-collar voters but must do it the old-fashioned way with a message that speaks directly to voters.

That, in and of itself, is not an unhealthy result. Democrats in some parts of the country have gotten soft by assuming the leadership of organized labor will indefinitely carry their message and produce results. Most union leaders will continue to support Democratic candidates but labor may not have the resources to get out the vote the way it has in the past.

Labor has a multiracial make-up and minority union members probably will continue to be solidly Democratic, but white union members — without a strong push from the top — may not be as reliably Democratic as they have been in recent years.

There is a lesson from recent events inside organized labor: Democrats will be in significant trouble if they don’t learn the right lesson.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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