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As the GOP Chases Public Sector Unions, Small Towns Feel a Pinch

From Wisconsin to Ohio to Indiana, the new Republican powers in statehouses have made clear that one of their chief targets is public sector unions.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker fought for and eventually won passage of a bill that limits the rights of public sector union members to bargain collectively. Ohio Gov. John Kasich recently signed a bill doing much of the same. And Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has backed off of legislation that would limit public sector union powers, for now, but he has also criticized unions as a “privileged elite.”

The governors argue that the changes they seek are necessary to help their states balance budgets in tight times, but critics counter that the moves are more political, aimed at weakening a key democratic constituency. When people are worried about their jobs and government spending, public employees make a convenient target, they argue.

But Patchwork Nation sees a different, significant shift potentially coming out of the fights — one that could the hit the GOP in future votes. The outlines of the possible change were visible in the Wisconsin Supreme Court special election earlier this month, where the Democrats picked up votes in most counties around the state, but particularly in the small-town, northern counties Patchwork Nation calls the Service Worker Centers.

When you look a little closer, one big issue seems to sit behind those vote totals: public sector employment in those places.

Where Do You Work?

The reaction to the Supreme Court election in Wisconsin has depended on the person’s political point of view. Democrats jumped on the close final tally as sign that voters were angry about Walker’s bill — judicial elections are generally coasts for incumbents. Republicans, meanwhile, classified the returns as simply a case of big union turnout in a special election where most stayed home.

The debate over the vote has become centered on changes in the results that flipped the election from the challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg to incumbent David Prosser and talk of a recount.

But those arguments miss a larger point. The vote shifts in many small-town Service Worker Center counties against the incumbent and toward the perceived Democrat (the office is officially nonpartisan), may be more about the economies of those places and the kind of work done there than anything else.

In Wisconsin’s 27 Service Worker Centers counties, Kloppenburg did 6 percent better than the Democratic candidate for governor did in November. Those counties overall share an important trait: higher levels of public sector employment.

A 2004 study found that statewide, less than 11 percent worked in the public sector, but in those 27 counties, about 14 percent of population works in the government in some form — everything from schools to road crews — precisely the kind of people targeted by the Walker bill.

In contrast, look at the four counties around Milwaukee in the southeast of the state, the wealthy Monied Burb counties of Racine, Ozaukee, Waukesha and Washington. In three of those four counties, Judge Prosser, considered a Republican, held even or did better than Scott Walker did in November.

Only about 9 percent of the workforce in those counties is in the public sector. And statewide, the Democrat/Republican percentage split was essentially unchanged from where it was in November in the Monied Burbs, where private sector jobs are a bigger part of the pie. On the whole voters there weren’t moved to change their minds in the special election.

2012 and Beyond

So is understanding the Supreme Court vote and Wisconsin’s impact as simple as looking at the number of people employed in the public sector? No. No voter calculus is ever solely determined by a single issue. As Patchwork Nation has repeatedly pointed out, the reason different communities vote in different ways is a mix of economics, culture and political identity and traditions.

But ignoring the impact of public sector employment in the Service Worker Centers would be foolish.

Of all of our 12 county types, the Service Worker Centers are among the most primed for a political change. They are politically conservative in their makeup historically, but they have less tethering them to the GOP otherwise. The counties tend to lack the religious conservatism seem in some other places — like the Evangelical Epicenters — and economically they are vulnerable.

The Service Worker counties have been among the hardest hit in the economic restructuring of recent decades as small manufacturing has disappeared. As those private sector jobs have abandoned these areas, the public sector has become increasingly important to them. And not just to the employees themselves, but their families and the surrounding businesses that count of the dollars in those people’s pockets to keep the local economies moving.

In taking on the public sector unions specifically the Republicans are, in some ways, hitting the people in the Service Worker Centers where they live — at a time they are the least prepared to handle it.

Is that enough to swing those places to the Democratic column? Probably not, at least not immediately. Despite all the talk of “revolutions” in American politics, change is more of an evolutionary affair, particularly at the community level.

But it may be enough to swing some votes in those places and that could be significant in 2012, especially when the statehouse fights of 2011 will still be fresh in people’s minds.

For the Republicans, the politics of their moves are not completely out of left field. Aside from whether they simply think attacking the unions is the right policy move, party officials may believe taking on government employees will play in the wealthy Monied Burbs. They have to do better in those counties in 2012 than they did in 2008, when President Obama won them by a wide margin.

If it is a gambit, will it work? All of that will be determined in the coming year. But going after public sector unions is clearly a strategy that holds risks for the Republicans.

The Service Worker Centers aren’t just heavily represented in Wisconsin, they are scattered all over in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia — all states that matter come presidential election time.

Dante Chinni the director of the Patchwork Nation project.

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