To one degree of another, Republicans have spent decades on the opposite side of our nation’s unions. That’s a generalization of course, but the fact is the GOP’s crack message machine repeatedly lumps unions together as one monolithic group. In doing so, fiscal conservatives and Republicans are missing an enormous opportunity to peel away votes from liberal Democrats across the country.
In order for pro-growth, fiscal conservative policy to have a shot in blue to purple states, the GOP must engage trades unions; in particular, with the same kind of deliberate outreach strategy they wish to use with other groups like Latinos.
Successful politics is about addition and multiplication. Cracking the Democrats’ hold on union members is a key to growing the impact of a Republican message. It is possible.
During a recent local campaign outside New York City, I had occasion to speak with a range of trades union members who almost to a person acknowledged how big government adversely impacted their industry, their union and their ability to earn a living.
First a little background on this particular situation. In New York, candidates for office have the ability to earn the nomination of more than one political party and in so doing have their names can appear on the ballot multiple times. It all adds to the convoluted “wild west” atmosphere surrounding elections in the state. For years, Republicans, who are grossly outnumbered by Democrats, padded their vote potential by teaming up with the state and local Conservative Parties. In marginal races, the additional ballot line gave the GOP candidates a boost that often made the difference between winning and losing.
The Reform Party of New York morphed into what is called the Independence Party which today courts candidates on both sides of the aisle. Several years ago a new political party emerged calling itself the Working Families Party. With its origins closely tied to ACORN, union interests and the Democrat establishment, it has quickly become a force to counter the Conservative Party and any GOP advance in key bellwether areas of the state.
Needless to say, the Working Families Party leadership wouldn’t even entertain an interview with the GOP candidates, opting to give their endorsement to the Democrats instead – but those Democrats still had to win the nomination. By forcing a write-in primary, the local Republican campaigns created an opportunity to take their economic development message directly to the party’s membership. House by house, block by block, the GOP campaigns sought out each member of the Working Families Party in their suburban New York community. They stood at the front doors, sat in living rooms and called voters on the phone to deliver a message that linked smaller government and pro-growth policies with the job creation those voters needed.
It was a non-threatening, fact-based approach. The word “Republican” was almost never mentioned. The discussion ceased to be about any political party or artificial political battle line. It became about what was necessary for those families to make ends meet.
It was tough spade work for the Republicans, but on primary night the Republican candidates secured the nomination of the Working Families voters. The Party establishment lost, and the people who were looking for more jobs and a more affordable community made their choice.
Liberty-minded, small government, fiscal conservatives must acknowledge that not all unions are created equally. Trades unions and public employee unions are two significantly different union cultures. What conservatives often fail to understand or acknowledge is that union members view each other differently as well. A member of the Carpenters’ Local or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers views a member of the SEIU as being in a fundamentally different kind of organization. Therein lays the opportunity.
Conservatives have to resist painting with a broad brush and doing what liberals do with a host of issues and groups – allow labels to color reality. Trades union members are small business owners. They are skilled, often highly trained workers employed by private enterprise or through government contracts. They don’t have guaranteed employment and benefits for life like so many public employees across the country. Most of them are not paid with taxpayer dollars.
As those GOP candidates walked their suburban New York City town, they made it a point to stop at the house with the “Licensed Contractor” bumper sticker in the driveway. They heard story after story about what high taxes and an unfriendly business environment was doing to their ability to find work. Many were commuting further, working for less and living paycheck to paycheck.
While of course there are exceptions to every rule, these aren’t people looking to game the system. They’re not expecting something for nothing. They’re not resting on a contract negotiated by elected officials who cared more about their political future than the taxpayer’s ability to pay.
They’re not big bad union members. They are trying to scrape together work to feed their families.
What was also apparent from the tough spade work by those local Republican candidates is that trades union members have little in common with their brethren in government unions. House after house, there was a real appreciation that every dollar spent on a bloated government program was money coming out of their pocket and food coming off their table. Big, unsustainable government means higher taxes and less money for everyone, from the family remodeling their kitchen to the corporation looking to build a new headquarters. Larger social programs also mean less money to replace our aging public infrastructure which would employ countless tradesmen workers.
This message must be conveyed widely from both the top down and the bottom up by fiscal conservative leaders. Just as there is an inherent disconnect between public and trades unions, there is a similar dynamic between national union leadership and their locals. The GOP would be wise to leave the labels at the door and bring a message of job creation directly to these local union members.
Trades union members will respond to a pro-growth message. They will understand that reducing the cost of government means more work for them. The more we do now to help shift their thinking and make them more open to our message, the more we can undercut another group taken for granted but long disserved by liberal policies.
As the number of ticket splitters and unaffiliated voters increase across the country along with public debt, deficits and tax rates, now is the time to get serious about outreach to unions. My running mate and my small win in Stony Point New York on the banks of the Hudson proves it can and should be done on a larger scale.