RACINE, Wis. (AP) — There once was a time when Harry and Nancy Harrington — their teenage children in tow — walked the picket line outside the nursing home where she was a medical aide, protesting the lack of a pension plan for the unionized work force.

But those days of family solidarity are gone.

Harry now blames years of union demands for an exodus of manufacturing jobs from this blue-collar city on the shore of Lake Michigan. He praises new Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for attempting to strip public employee unions of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights. And he wishes police would clear out the pro-union protesters now in their third week of occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol.

“I’m sorry, but the unions want to yell, they want to intimidate,” says Harry Harrington, 69, as he sets a coffee cup down next to another newspaper headline about the union demonstrations.

“They want to be heard,” retorts Nancy Harrington, 66, who fears a weakened union would jeopardize the teaching career of their now 38-year-old daughter.

The Harringtons typify the new national reality for labor unions. Support is no longer a sure thing from the middle class– not even in a city long considered a union stronghold in a state that gave birth to the nation’s largest public employee union. National polls show that the portion of the public that views unions favorably has dropped to near historic lows in recent years, dipping below 50 percent by some accounts.

But surveys also show a public uneasy with attempts to weaken union bargaining rights by emboldened Republican governors who swept into power in the 2010 elections amid concerns about state finances. A Pew Research Center poll released earlier this week found more adults nationwide sided with unions than the governor in the Wisconsin dispute.

For unions, the political standoffs occurring in states such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio and are a make or break moment — a chance to repair tarnished luster or risk sinking toward irrelevancy among the American public.

In Racine, a nearly two-hour drive southeast of the epicenter of the union controversy in Madison, the question of the union’s appropriate role has divided husband and wife, mother and child, co-workers and friends. It’s the hot topic on editorial pages, at coffee shops, even at the craft club that meets in the community center at Roosevelt Park, where a dozen retired women recently were talking over the top of each other about union powers while knitting socks and hats.

Among these women, at least, the pro-union protesters are right and Wisconsin’s governor is wrong. Their group includes a retired Racine public school teacher who in 1977 joined in a teacher walkout that lasted more than a month. Racine schools shut down again for one day this February when a quarter of their teachers were absent in a show of support for pro-union protesters.

Yet the teachers’ union is not the power it once was in the Racine area. Despite a well-funded media campaign, the union’s candidate, Democratic state Sen. John Lehmen, of Racine — a former high school teacher — was ousted by Republican challenger Van Wanggaard in last fall’s election. District voters also picked Walker over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett.

When the teachers walked out last month in nearby Kenosha, substitutes such as Kevin Kreckling quickly stepped forward. “I felt a little torn–I wanted to have solidarity with the teachers, but I have to make money, too,” said Kreckling, 30, the son of a union painter and who is studying to be a teacher at Concordia University in Mequon.

The decline in union power is perhaps best symbolized by the area near Roosevelt Park, where a monument dedicated by the AFL-CIO honors the Depression-era president who signed a 1935 federal law guaranteeing collective bargaining rights. Not far away is a tall chain link fence protecting the vacant plot of the old Case Corp. farm equipment factory, which was razed a few years ago after the company merged with another corporation and then downsized.

CNH Global N.V., the successor company, still operates in the area. And the city remains the home of S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., which makes cleaning products and bug sprays, and vehicle radiator maker Modine Manufacturing Co. Yet numerous other companies have scaled back or shut down, resulting in the loss of a third of Racine’s manufacturing jobs in the past 20 years, according to federal Bureau of Labor Service statistics.

“It’s been a real blood-letting of companies,” said Racine Mayor John Dickert, adding optimistically: “But we’re turning that around.”

Racine’s unemployment rate remains the second highest in the state, at 12.8 percent in December. As the jobs have diminished, so also have the union ranks. But the problem isn’t solely about fewer members. It’s also that more people have come to perceive union employees as the beneficiaries of cushy pension and health care plans that others no longer enjoy, and even attribute union gains to business losses.

“Way back when, they protected the workers when there was no protection — when they were overworked and not paid enough. But in today’s society, they’re too strong,” said Wendy Vesely, a Modine employee who was celebrating her 44th birthday with her family at Racine diner that attracts a cross-section of pro- and anti-union patrons.

Vesely thinks the Wisconsin governor is on the right track, but may be “trying to get too much too quickly.”

Barbara Ford, one of the knitters at the community center, said she thought little about unions when she worked in the finance department at S.C. Johnson, a non-union company. Now, with Walker’s push to limit their bargaining rights, “Every time I think about it, my blood boils,” said Ford, 65, who retired five years ago. “It’s just horrible what he’s doing to the state.”

Public anxiety about the economy has created an opportunity for pro-business Republican officials to challenge unions in ways that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.

In Missouri, where unions’ share of the work force is half what it was a generation ago, the leader of the state Senate is pushing for “right to work” legislation that would prohibit union shops in which all workers must pay union fees. In Ohio, Republican leaders are pushing a bill that would restrict collective bargaining rights for 350,000 public employees.

The national framework for collective bargaining was laid in 1934 in Toledo, Ohio, after a violent labor dispute. But there’s no question that support for unions has waned there in recent years, said Oscar Bunch, 81, who worked for 50 years at a General Motors plant. He notices a mindset now that anyone with a well-paying job is lucky. Auto workers have given “concession after concession,” and that hasn’t helped the cause of public-sector employees, he said.

Dining at the same restaurant as Bunch, union electrician Norman Cook, 57, of Elmore, Ohio, said the Republican officials sense an opportunity. “Their entire motive is to bust unions,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of the financial times.”

Just south of Racine, in what would have been the shadow of the former Case foundry, Jim Geshay runs a one-man chemical repackaging business in an aging cinder block building across the street from the bar that has been a union hang out. Yet Geshay says he soured on unions during the 1977 teachers strike when teachers he trusted tried to stop students from attending classes.

“I personally think it’s time for them to pay their fair share,” Geshay said.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (12)
  1. Nobama says:

    Top Ten Reasons Why I Don’t Want A Union

    10. The union doesn’t write my paycheck.

    9. Unions would rather cause problems than work together.

    8. Union scale means the best workers are carrying the worst.

    7. The people who want a union really need one.

    6. Too corrupt.

    5. Too political, too liberal and too partisan.

    4. Unions are only about power and money for the ones who run the union.

    3. Unions are negative about everything but how great they are.

    2. I like to work steady.

    1. I’ve got too much self respect.

    1. Fred says:

      I really hope that you end up in a situation where you understand the benefits of the unions. Unions area as good as the membership that takes part. 1-9are complete bs. You are entitled to your opinion based on whatever limited experience you might have. If the hiring manager hire quality people many of the negatives go away.

  2. kev says:

    Why do republicans insist on making war with the middle class? Why are they so against education? Do they really think republicans like Walker are on their side?
    How long will it take for them to realize that democrats are the only help left?

    1. Union Free America says:

      @KEV- do the research and think for youself!

    2. Ralph says:

      The people on the right oppose someone getting something they perceive as free when they are not getting anything. They may not care about education because their education did not matter to them, or their education ended up a piece of paper that did not provide instant easy wealth. Lastly and sadly they do not believe in helping others

  3. Union Free America says:

    Unions have been going downhill for about fifty years. There was a time when almost 35% of all workers on private payrolls were union members. By 2009 it had fallen to 7.2%.
    Unions probably deserve to pass the way of the horse and carriage. They have outlived their usefulness.
    But working Americans who are trapped in unions because of decisions that were made by others long before they got their jobs have a real problem
    Unions aren’t just dying, they seem to be killing jobs, too. Take a look at what’s happening in manufacturing.
    The number of manufacturing jobs is on the decline. Between 1983 and 2009 manufacturing jobs in America declined by about 5.6 million but most of that loss was in unionized jobs. The number of unionized manufacturing jobs fell from 5.3 million in 1983 to 1.5 million in 2009. That’s a 72% loss.
    During that same period of time, the number of nonunion manufacturing jobs only declined by about 13% from 13.7 to 11.9 million.
    American workers are hard working and productive. They can compete in a global economy but not when they have the additional burden of a union.

  4. opensecrets.org says:

    You can go to opensecrets.org and see where your union dues go, who got what and how much.

  5. paab says:

    If you read the article you can see Racine has lot 1/3 of its jobs in the last 20 years, you can bet it was mostly caused by too expensive Union benefits. Union members need to understand more, more, more now means you won’t have a job later. Also these teachers claim to only love to teach, but walk out on your children.

  6. Wesly says:

    The goal of the union is to advance the wages and skills of the membership. There is not a person writing replies to this article who would not take as much money as they can get., yet they begrudge the unions for this very activity.

  7. mark says:

    Unions did not cause Wisconsin’s budgetary problems. The Wisconsin Public Employee Trust Fund is in excellent shape and well funded. Workers are willing to take cuts, pay their share. They do not want to lose their voice. The work place is more productive when employers and workers cooperate. Without a union, workers have no voice. Do you really want to remove a strong voice for the middle class in this economy? Shared sacrifice and more efficiency sure. . Shouldn’t the sacrifice be shared equally. Destroy unions and see what the workplace will become in this age when workers are a dime a dozen. Then without consumer demand, who will support the economy. Where is Henry Ford when we need him. He believed in paying a living wage.
    Oh, the elephant in the room: Health Care costs. It is hard for anyone to earn a living wage or viable business with soaring premiums. Anybody have a better plan out there than the Affordable Health Care Act? mark

  8. Jon says:

    Wesly and mark,seems like common sense and the truth are hard to argue with! Well stated.

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