Reagan, himself a former union president, performed well electorally in part because he won over blue collar Democrats who were union members, the "Reagan Democrats" to his party. But, the legacy left by his decision to fire striking air traffic controllers more profoundly influenced his party.
Frontal attacks on union power in Wisconsin, Ohio and this week, Michigan, have been actions that emphatically say that unions and union members are not welcome in the Republican party.
Republicans have already made entirely clear that people who aren't Christians are welcome in their party. And, Republicans have done a pretty good job of telling people who aren't white, or aren't straight, that they aren't welcome in the Republican party either.
Unions may make up a declining share of the voting public. In Michigan, a union stronghold, only about one in six workers is in a union. Union members have also tended to favor Democrats since times immemorial. But, Republicans had been making bigger inroads with union members in recent elections than with almost any other traditionally Democratic constitutency.
Do Republicans really need to alienate the large number of working class white Christian union members who would otherwise have supported them, kicking one more large group of people out of their already small tent?
Romney's failure to win critical states like Ohio and Michigan, despite the fact that Michigan is the state where he was born, and that Republicans have managed to control state legislatures in both states, more than anything else, can be boiled down to one critical misstep during the financial crisis. Romney urged the federal government to let General Motors and Chrysler, icons of the old industrial, union dominated economy and a major source of regional jobs, die.
The 1950s that Republicans want the country to return to, at least in terms of social issues, was one build by big manufacturing companies with heavily unionized workforces.
But, Republicans have included unions in the handbasket they think that the nation is going to hell in, along with abortion, birth control, gays, fiat money, feminism, secularism, Muslims, immigrants, taxes, government regulations, welfare recipients, blacks, newspaper reporters, professors, science, drugs, terrorism, government involvement in health care, public employees, public lands, mass transit, the metric system, soccer, gun control, and art house movies. Republicans are convinced that global power is still about how many battleships you own, but they abhore foreign aid.
At the end of the day, Republicans seem to be working hard to confine themselves to a small tent. They have a coalition that can still consistently win majorities in Southern states and on the Great Plains. And, when voters turnout is low and their candidates aren't affilicted with foot in mouth disease, they can come close to attaining majorities nationally. But, in politics, the secret to getting elected is to have a lot of friends, and the Republican party seems intent on unfriending large parts of the American public as fast as it can.
Is Wisconsin proof that union busting doesn't hurt Republicans politically?
Suffice it to say that I expect Republicans could lose ground in Michigan in 2014, and probably in other places where unions have any power as well, as a result of their action. Or, not.
One of the undercovered stories of the 2012 election is that Republicans paid almost no political price for the union busting actions they took in 2011 which sparked huge protests and a series of recall elections.
In 2010, Democrats lost the Governorship, a U.S. Senate seat, the State Treasurer's office, and a net two seats in Congress, four state senate seats (costing Democrats their majority in the state senate), and thirteen state house seats (costing Democrats their majority in the state house). Democrats clawed back a narrow majority in the state senate in midterm recall elections. But, when the dust settled after the November 2012 election, Republicans were in almost the same dominant position that they were in after the 2010 election.
Republicans retained majorities in both houses of the state legislature. They had just one less state senate seat than they had after the 2010 election, and had one more state house seat (at the expense of the sole indpendent in the state house in 2010). Democrats held onto their other U.S. Senate seat and cast their electoral college votes for President Obama, but ultimately, Republican elected officials at the state level paid no price for their union busting in Wisconsin, despite the fact that the 2012 election had higher turnout since it is a Presidential election, than the 2010 election, a factor that should have favored Democrats.
Ohio Republican also gained control of the state's government in 2010.
Michigan Republicans were swept into control of state government in 2010, the same year that Republicans made inroad in Wisconsin.
Yet, Michigan Republicans tellingly waited until after they had an opportunity to see if Wisconsin Republicans paid a political price for their union busting before acting themselves. They concluded, probably rightly, that Wisconsin Republicans paid a short term political price for their move, but that less than two years later, voters seemed to no longer care. So, they decided to go ahead with an anti-union law of their own and passed it as quickly as possible so that any outrage over their actions would have a full twenty-three months to die down before voters rendered their verdict on them.
While unions are relatively strong in Wisconsin compared to most states, they are far more influential in Michigan. So, the electorate in Michigan may be less forgiving there. And, Republicans lost four state house seats in 2012.