RACINE, Wis. — There once was a time when Harry and Nancy Harrington — their teenage children in tow — walked the picket line outside the nursing home where she was a medical aide, protesting the lack of a pension plan for the unionized work force.
But those days of family solidarity are
Harry now blames years of union demands for an exodus of manufacturing jobs from this blue-collar city on the shore of Lake Michigan. He praises new Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for attempting to strip public employee unions of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights. Protesters opposed to Walker’s plan have held steady at the Wisconsin Capitol for nearly three weeks, though their overnight sit-ins ended Thursday with a judge’s order.
“I’m sorry, but the unions want to yell, they want to intimidate,” says Harry Harrington, 69, as he sets a coffee cup down next to another newspaper headline about the union demonstrations.
“They want to be heard,” retorts Nancy Harrington, 66, who fears a weakened union would jeopardize the teaching career of their now 38-year-old daughter.
The Harringtons typify the new national reality for labor unions. Support is no longer a sure thing from the middle class — not even in a city long considered a union stronghold in a state that gave birth to the nation’s largest public employee union. National polls show that the portion of the public that views unions favorably has dropped to near historic lows in recent years, dipping below 50 percent by some accounts.
But surveys also show a public uneasy with attempts to weaken union bargaining rights by emboldened Republican governors who swept into power in the 2010 elections amid concerns about state finances. A Pew Research Center poll released earlier this week found more adults nationwide sided with unions than the governor in the Wisconsin dispute.
Make or break
For unions, the political standoffs occurring in states such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio are a make or break moment — a chance to repair tarnished luster or risk sinking toward irrelevancy among the American public.
In Racine, a nearly two-hour drive southeast of the epicenter of the union controversy in Madison, the question of the union’s appropriate role has divided husband and wife, mother and child, co-workers and friends. It’s the hot topic on editorial pages, at coffee shops, even at the craft club that meets in the community center at Roosevelt Park, where a dozen retired women recently were talking over the top of each other about union powers while knitting socks and hats.
Among these women, at least, the pro-union protesters are right and Wisconsin’s governor is wrong. Their group includes a retired Racine public school teacher who in 1977 joined in a teacher walkout that lasted more than a month. Racine schools shut down again for one day this February when a quarter of their teachers were absent in a show of support for pro-union protesters.
Yet the teachers union is not the power it once was in the Racine area. Despite a well-funded media campaign, the union’s candidate, Democratic state Sen. John Lehmen, of Racine — a former high school teacher — was ousted by Republican challenger Van Wanggaard in last fall’s election. District voters also picked Walker over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett.
When the teachers in nearby Kenosha took time off last month to support union protesters, substitutes such as Kevin Kreckling quickly stepped forward. “I felt a little torn — I wanted to have solidarity with the teachers, but I have to make money, too,” said Kreckling, 30, the son of a union painter and who is studying to be a teacher at Concordia University in Mequon.
The decline in union power is perhaps best symbolized by the area near Roosevelt Park, where a monument dedicated by the AFL-CIO honors the Depression-era president who signed a 1935 federal law guaranteeing collective bargaining rights. Not far away is a tall chain link fence protecting the vacant plot of the old Case Corp. farm equipment factory, which was razed a few years ago after the company merged with another corporation and then downsized.
CNH Global N.V., the successor company, still operates in the area. And the city remains the home of S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., which makes cleaning products and bug sprays, and vehicle radiator maker Modine Manufacturing Co. Yet numerous other companies have scaled back or shut down, resulting in the loss of a third of Racine’s manufacturing jobs in the past 20 years, according to federal Bureau of Labor Service statistics.
“It’s been a real blood-letting of companies,” said Racine Mayor John Dickert, adding optimistically: “But we’re turning that around.”
Racine’s unemployment rate remains the second highest in the state, at 12.8 percent in December. As the jobs have diminished, so also have the union ranks. But the problem isn’t solely about fewer members. It’s also that more people have come to perceive union employees as the beneficiaries of cushy pension and health care plans that others no longer enjoy, and even attribute union gains to business losses.
“Way back when, they protected the workers when there was no protection — when they were overworked and not paid enough. But in today’s society, they’re too strong,” said Wendy Vesely, a Modine employee who was celebrating her 44th birthday with her family at Racine diner that attracts a cross-section of pro- and anti-union patrons.
Vesely thinks the Wisconsin governor is on the right track, but may be “trying to get too much too quickly.”
Barbara Ford, one of the knitters at the community center, said she thought little about unions when she worked in the finance department at S.C. Johnson, a non-union company. Now, with Walker’s push to limit their bargaining rights, “Every time I think about it, my blood boils,” said Ford, 65, who retired five years ago. “It’s just horrible what he’s doing to the state.”
Public anxiety about the economy has created an opportunity for pro-business Republican officials to challenge unions in ways that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.
In Missouri, where unions’ share of the work force is half what it was a generation ago, the leader of the state Senate is pushing for “right to work” legislation that would prohibit union shops in which all workers must pay union fees. In Ohio, Republican leaders are pushing a bill that would restrict collective bargaining rights for 350,000 public employees.
Tough times don’t help
The national framework for collective bargaining was laid in 1934 in Toledo, Ohio, after a violent labor dispute. But there’s no question that support for unions has waned there in recent years, said Oscar Bunch, 81, who worked for 50 years at a General Motors plant. He notices a mindset now that anyone with a well-paying job is lucky. Auto workers have given “concession after concession,” and that hasn’t helped the cause of public-sector employees, he said.
Dining at the same restaurant as Bunch, union electrician Norman Cook, 57, of Elmore, Ohio, said the Republican officials sense an opportunity. “Their entire motive is to bust unions,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of the financial times.”
Just south of Racine, in what would have been the shadow of the former Case foundry, Jim Geshay runs a one-man chemical repackaging business in an aging cinder block building across the street from the bar that has been a union hang out. Yet Geshay says he soured on unions during the 1977 teachers strike when teachers he trusted tried to stop students from attending classes.
“I personally think it’s time for them to pay their fair share,” Geshay said.
Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this report.