After Wisconsin: Race, the 2012 Race, and Beyond

Poor Ed Schultz. The exit poll statistic he couldn't get over was that 37 percent of union households in Wisconsin voted to keep Scott Walker. He thinks Wisconsin is a "wake up call" for unions in general and that they need to get "back to the classroom" with their members and educate them on this issue.

Well, maybe -- but which issue exactly? Consider this little gem from New York, the most unionized state in the nation.

His rhetoric isn't as rough as Chris Christie's, and he's not trying to strip public sector workers of collective bargaining rights, but Andrew Cuomo -- like Jerry Brown in California -- has to take them on regardless. State and local economies just can't keep up with those benefits -- forget the history, forget the reasons, that's the situation now. The scary news in this piece is how some New York building trade unions lined up with real estate developers and put down real money to oppose their public sector brothers and sisters. It's no accident that, right after the Walker victory, Mitch Daniel came out and said that public sector unions should be banned while private sector unions "remain necessary." As always, these guys know exactly what they're doing. And to say they are dividing the labor movement, while true, only scratches the surface. There are deeper implications.

Consider this: the Service Employees International Union is the fastest growing in the country. 2.1 million strong, it represents the largest number of workers in health care (nurses etc.), in property services (janitors etc.) and second largest in public services (bus drivers, cafeteria workers etc.). Also growing by leaps and bounds, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is the second or third largest union in the country. It represents nurses, corrections officers, child care providers, EMTs, and sanitation workers, among others. Private sector unions, on the other hand, have been in decline for decades.

You can sum it up with this statistic: public-sector workers have a union membership rate (37.0 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.9 percent).

I can't find statistics to tell me what proportion of the public sector union membership is black and Hispanic (and female) as compared to private sector membership. I can't find the statistics -- but when I see a list of occupations like cafeteria workers, child care providers, janitors, and nurses and then recall the genders and complexions of the workers I see at big construction sites in New York City -- well, let's say I bet those statistics would be interesting. Put it this way: what percent of the 37 percent of union households who voted for Scott Walker were private sector union households, I wonder? Ed Schultz should look into that.

There are also more immediate implications. Consider this. Among the scary facts to choose from here, the scariest is the geographical distribution of the under-the-polling-radar racism that may bring Obama down in November: West Virginia, east Ohio, western Pennsylvania, upstate New York. I'm reckoning that will correspond pretty closely to the demographic that made up Ed's 37 percent. If I am on the right track, it is going to take more than a few workshops to counter what's amiss in Laborland. It goes way back, of course. What's discouraging is that it looks likely to go on and on.

The big picture: a lot of blue state liberals may not have noticed, or just shrugged off, the news that white births made up less than half of U.S. births as of July 2011. But you can be sure that news will not go unremarked among those determined to replace "welfare queen" with "public sector queen" in the national pantheon of invidious stereotypes. The "take back our country" theme is just getting under way in American politics.

That's why voter registration vs. voter suppression is the most important practical political issue on the table -- in 2012, and beyond.