John Kasich Charms Unions as Scott Walker Embodies New Republican AntipathyMark Niquette
Standing with a crowd of carpenters to accept their endorsement, Ohio Governor John Kasich acknowledged that it wasn’t easy for union members to back a Republican.
“But we’ve gotten to know each other over time,” Kasich said in Columbus, two weeks before winning re-election in November. “For too long, there’s been a disconnect between people like me and organized labor.”
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently confronted the union issue, too. When asked how he would deal with global threats such as the Islamic State, he compared the terrorist group to labor demonstrators who besieged him in 2011.
The contrast illustrates tension in the Republican Party over whether to court blue-collar Democrats or paint union members as moochers and an impediment to business. The competing approaches will draw scrutiny as Walker and Kasich consider seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
Confrontation may be an advantage for Walker among party voters who want a fighter and are wary of union ties to Democrats, said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to the party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney. Cooperation bolsters Kasich’s pitch as a pragmatist.
“Many voters are looking for a candidate that can both identify and relate to the concerns of middle-class voters, and Kasich does that very well,” Madden said. “That approach, which is, ‘I’m going to work with anybody who wants to get things done,’ that’s also a compelling argument.”
Kasich and Walker both took office in 2011 and signed bills limiting collective bargaining for public employees, despite protests at their statehouses.
Ohio voters repealed their law by an almost two-thirds margin that November. Wisconsin’s measure wasn’t subject to referendum, but unions and Walker opponents made an unsuccessful effort to recall him in 2012.
During that time, Republican governors in Indiana and Michigan approved right-to-work laws allowing employees in union workplaces to opt out of paying dues and Walker followed suit this year. In Illinois, where Democrats control the legislature, newly elected Republican Governor Bruce Rauner issued an executive order stopping mandatory fair-share fees for non-union public workers. The payments were levied to support unions that bargained on their behalf.
Kasich, who has said anti-labor measures could disrupt relations with management, pursued a different path. After the repudiation of the Ohio law, he said that “the people have spoken” and took a less confrontational approach. His support for development initiatives, including $1.5 billion in debt backed by Ohio Turnpike tolls for infrastructure, won some union support for his re-election.
Those initiatives will mean billions in wages and benefits in coming years, said Matthew Szollosi, executive director of the 91,000-member Affiliated Construction Trades Ohio union.
“He’s listened,” Szollosi said. “He’s learned a lot about us. Our leaders have learned a lot about him. And I think the relationship has grown close.”
Resentment remains over the bargaining law: The Ohio AFL-CIO backed Kasich’s Democratic opponent last year. Yet Szollosi’s group gave the governor’s campaign the maximum $12,156 in 2013, and Kasich also won the endorsement of engineers and carpenters unions, as well as the Ohio Laborers’ District Council.
“Governor Kasich, in our opinion, is one of the few governors in the Midwest supporting the blue-collar, working middle class,” said Jason Clark, the Ohio political representative for the 32,000-member Council of Carpenters.
Kasich, 62, who tells audiences he is the son of a mailman from McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, won re-election with 64 percent of vote. He even carried labor-dominated counties such as Cuyahoga, the state’s most populous. Exit polls showed Kasich had support from 53 percent of voters with a union member in the household.
“Most of them still disagree with him, but there’s a kind of grudging admiration,” John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, said of Ohio union members. “Here’s somebody who kind of learned his lesson and has become more cooperative.”
In Wisconsin, Walker won only 34 percent of union households. While he almost immediately sought to clarify his Islamic State comparison, in almost every speech, Walker recounts confrontations with labor, including the way demonstrators camped for weeks in Madison in 2011. As many as 100,000 rallied against him.
“They seek to intimidate,” Walker, 47, said during an appearance last month in New Hampshire. “Instead of intimidating us, it reminded us exactly who elected us and the job they elected us to do.”
Walker often cites former Republican President Ronald Reagan, who broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Yet Reagan also courted blue-collar Democrats and generally accepted the legitimacy of unions.
Kasich is following that traditional approach, said William Jones, a University of Wisconsin-Madison labor historian. Walker represents a shift by Republicans, employing more confrontation as union membership, influence and the threat of retaliation has declined.
“We’re seeing an evolution of the Republican Party into a much stronger anti-union position, one that does not sort of equivocate,” Jones said.
Union members accounted for 12.4 percent of workers in Ohio last year, compared with 11.7 percent in Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Membership in both states is down from 1989 levels of 21.3 percent and 20.9 percent, respectively. Nationwide, membership declined to 11.1 percent last year from 16.4 percent during that period.
While the Republican governors may not be that far apart on actual policy, Kasich’s approach holds out the possibility of greater cooperation between the party and labor, said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois.
“He’s not going to stand up on a boxcar and say, ‘Workers of the world unite,’” Bruno said. Still, “there is the real possibility of a less hostile relationship.”