I thought it was all about collective bargaining.
Wasn't that the idea when activists began circulating recall petitions for eight Republican senators in the days following Gov. Scott Walker's introduction of the infamous budget repair bill, which stripped most public employee unions of most of their collective bargaining rights?
Make no mistake; the recalls would never have been possible without the union issue. It's true that progressives, especially in Madison, have mobilized against just about everything else the GOP has done in the past six months, including the concealed-carry bill and cuts to education and health programs. But none of those issues could have spurred the Capitol protests in February and March, which recalled Vietnam War-era fury.
Unions, which often benefit from committed members who will knock on doors and make phone calls, have always been effective at political organizing, but they are especially fierce when their existence is threatened. Hence, the most successful recall drive in the nation's history.
And yet, with all the momentum from the union issue, Democrats running in recall elections have decided that just about everything else is more important than collective bargaining.
Health care, education, the environment, veterans, small businesses and people who are "salt of the earth." These are all things you can read about on the websites of the nine Democratic recall candidates. Collective bargaining is not.
The trusty UW pollster Charles Franklin figures that voters who will be moved by the union issue are already engaged, and therefore Democrats are not going to expend rhetoric targeting them. Then there's that other problem: "It doesn't help that we've only got 14% union membership in this country," Franklin says. "Unions remain very important for the ground game, but in terms of speaking to their issues in a public forum, you're speaking to a small minority."
This is the conventional wisdom the Democratic Party has operated on for years. During primaries, candidates roll out the union endorsements and compete for credentials in union halls. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton voice "serious concerns" about trade agreements with their fingers crossed behind their backs.
It was this approach that made Walker's war against public workers possible. Does anybody remember Tom Barrett bringing up labor issues last fall? He didn't, because who would have cared?
Maybe the nearly 40% of union members who voted for Scott Walker.
Talking about unions certainly carries risks. Too much talk about such a small segment of the population can leave the other 86% feeling left out. That was certainly Walker's thinking when he proposed busting the unions. A politician who can motivate the majority to resent a minority is invincible.
However, Democrats tacitly play into his game. Instead of articulating how unions benefit the general population, they speak in the vaguest terms about the importance of preserving the rights of public workers.
And that's exactly what Walker wants. The public will not respond kindly to the preservation of a tradition it believes is to its disadvantage. He wants the hairdressers, the laid-off GM workers and others to believe the public-sector unions are a privileged class of people who have earned the support of the Democratic Party through political connections.
If Democrats want to appeal to existing union members and other "working people" (whatever that means), they have to talk about reigniting the labor movement, not simply protecting what remains of it.
The changes to our economy may have made some decline in unionization inevitable, but the decreasing awareness of labor issues has also played a significant role in keeping unions out of workplaces. I know I was taken aback when somebody suggested unionization at a job I once had. "Really - would that be possible?" I asked. "Sure - most of the people at our competitors are unionized," responded a co-worker.
As a political junkie, I would have been a lot less ignorant about collective bargaining if I'd heard a thing or two about it from politicians.
If Democrats are not willing to address the concentration of wealth in this country by raising taxes on the rich, the least they could do is encourage workers to empower themselves and get some of the money on the top to finally trickle down.
Jack Craver blogs as the Sconz at TheDailyPage.com.