Unions’ costly victories foreshadow future struggles

"$75 million"

-- The estimated cost to unions and their allies of defeating a California ballot measure that would have made it illegal for unions and corporations to use money deducted from an employee’s paycheck for political purposes.

It took the death of Twinkie the Kid to get many Americans to pay attention to the increasingly bitter battle by unions to reverse decades of decline.

But as holiday shoppers hit the stores this week, millions more will be reminded of the conflict as unions and their allies protest outside Wal-Mart stores across the country.

This is not a strike, this is an effort to disrupt business at non-union stores during the busiest shopping time of the year. These flash mobs and protesters are aiming to make Black Friday an even more unhappy occasion for shoppers in hopes of punishing America’s largest retailer for a successful two-decade effort to remain non-unionized.

After losing clout and membership since their peak in the mid-1950s and beset by a host of new challenges from business groups and their conservative allies, big labor was looking for a breakout moment in the Obama era.

But the 2012 election showed organized labor struggling to hold the line and still in search of a game changing moment.

Certainly, unions had a huge victory in helping re-elect President Obama.

The president has failed to deliver the largest prize sought by unions: the end of secret ballot requirements for union organizing elections. But Obama’s National Labor Relations Board has delivered substantial changes to organizing rules, including allowing so-called “micro unions” that grant collective bargaining powers to groups as small as two or three members and shortening the time before union elections are held.

But Obama is also promising more austerity measures as part of a do-or-die deal with Republicans to address looming tax hikes, across-the-board spending cuts, a breached borrowing limit and other fiscal woes that threaten to turn a weak recovery into a double-dip recession.

This is a direct threat to weakened unions which have become dominated by government workers rather than the industrial members who populated big labor during its heyday.

Obama may give unions more ability to reverse losses in the shrinking private-sector universe and there is hope for another burst of stimulus spending to help state- and local-level government unions, but the march of austerity means a continuing struggle to keep up dues payments from all-important government workers.

Labor leaders are promising to keep the pressure on Obama to refuse spending cuts, but the president has made clear that he is going to cut a deal that includes reductions.

Aside from Obama’s re-election, there were few big victories for organized labor this year.

Labor spent big to retain the governor’s mansion for Democrats in New Hampshire, thereby preventing the New England state from becoming the first in the region to ban compulsory union membership, as most southern states already do.

In Michigan, unions got a split decision. While they succeeded in a ballot initiative to reverse a new law giving bankrupt cities that power to curb collective bargaining powers, the union-backed initiative to make collective bargaining part of the state constitution fell flat.

By far the most important state issue for unions was Proposition 38 in California, where unions and Democratic allies spent an estimated $75 million to block a law that would have ended the practice where dues deducted from worker paychecks, including government workers, could be given to politicians and political causes.

But this was a defensive struggle. The loss of compulsory political contributions in California would have been devastating to the long-standing compact between government-worker unions and the Democratic politicians they patronize. It was a crucial victory, but it shouldn’t have consumed so much money or effort to preserve the basic arrangement for unions in the state where they have perhaps the most sway.

In the rest of the country, unions lost ground.

After the election, there will be 24 states with Republican governors and legislatures compared to half as many under complete Democratic control. That means the fight to preserve compulsory union membership for government workers and automatic dues payments will continue.

Unions have spent dearly for a partial legal victory on the subject in Wisconsin, but by failing in the effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker, big labor has dramatically reduced the fear factor for other Republican governors and lawmakers for taking on government worker unions.

And Republicans, having learned lessons from Wisconsin, have improved their strategies for taking on government-worker unions. The two years to come promise more expensive, divisive struggles by unions to hold the line on collective bargaining and mandatory dues.

And it will be happening in states that don’t have the strong union base of Wisconsin, where it took the state Senate taking flight and months of protests just to prevent total victory for the GOP.

In the demise of Hostess and now the Wal-Mart protests, Americans are getting a consumers-eye view of what they saw from government workers two years ago in Wisconsin: extraordinary measures from groups facing the brink.

Many are puzzled as to why the union representing Hostess workers would play chicken with some 18,000 jobs on the line. Similarly, shoppers may wonder why unions would stage protests outside of non-union Wal-Mart stores on the busiest shopping days of the year.

But if unions can’t find a way to stop reversals and start making inroads, the march to irrelevancy will continue. You know what they say about desperate times.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“What is Hamas trying to do? It wants to translate the increase in strength to new agreements… During which they will become extremely strong, develop hundreds of thousands of rockets that can hit Israel. Can hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and put 80 percent of Israel under its rockets. Israel will never agree to that. That is slow suicide. So, as long as Hamas is demanding that, the offensive will continue.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30 a.m. ET  at http:live.foxnews.com.