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Did We Back the Wrong Horse?

Could it be that some conservative voters are having buyer’s remorse over the crowd of union-busting politicians they’ve elected? If Jerry Cupp of Columbus, OH, is typical, then maybe so.

Cupp is a 30-year veteran of the Columbus Police Department and a dues-paying member of the police union. In a remarkable weekend interview with The Columbus Dispatch, he removed his uniform—including badge and pistol—before stressing that he was expressing his political views as a 54-year-old private citizen, taxpayer, Tea Party supporter, and union man. Only then did he lash out at Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whom he helped elect last November.

Cupp declared war on the conservative political leaders such as Gov. Kasich who are determined to bust public-service unions. “Most cops lean Republican,” Cupp told Joe Hallett, a senior editor at the newspaper. “Not anymore. I don’t know of one cop now who admits he’s a Republican.”

Gov. Kasich signed a GOP-backed bill last month that bans public worker strikes, eliminates binding arbitration, and restricts collective bargaining for 350,000 public workers, including cops and firefighters. Efforts are now underway—led in large measure by public safety forces, including the Fraternal Order of Police/Ohio Labor Council—to gather 230,000 valid signatures by June 30 to put the matter before voters on the state’s November ballot.

“I voted for John Kasich,” Cupp said in the interview. “So does that make me an idiot?”

Hallett recognized the irony. After all, Tea Partiers and conservatives say they’re all for cutting the budget and holding down government spending on union benefits. Isn’t this a case of being angry because Cupp’s ox—not some Democrat-leaning civil servant’s—is the one being gored?

Voters elsewhere may be feeling the same. Another unrelated—but just as eerily ominous for conservatives who dare challenge unions—weekend news item suggests buyer’s remorse may have legs to wander deep into the conservative heartland. The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that blue-collar workers are being stymied in their efforts to organize a union at an IKEA manufacturing plant in Danville, VA.

The Swedish furniture maker opened the sprawling factory in the economically depressed town in a rural setting on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. Workers were happy, at first, at the prospect of good jobs in a place were work was scarce. But three years later they are fed up. They charge that the company is taking advantage of them by paying unfairly low wages.

In Sweden, known for its liberal social policies and worker protection practices, IKEA employees earn about $19 an hour and receive a government-required five weeks of paid vacation. In Danville, IKEA’s starting full-time employees earn $8 an hour with 12 vacation days, only four of which the employees can choose when to take. The company admits it placed the factory there because it wanted to reduce the costs associated with shipping goods to its popular stores across the United States.

Bill Street, an organizer with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, told the newspaper that his efforts to form a union at the Danville IKEA plant have been opposed by the company’s U.S.-based lawyers. He added that some workers have been threatened and fired for speaking up. “It’s ironic that Ikea looks on the U.S. and Danville workers the way that most people in the U.S. look at Mexico,” he said.

Danville is no bastion of progressive, labor-friendly politics. That entire region of rural Virginia is overwhelmingly conservative. The surrounding Pittsylvania County gave a whopping 62 percent of its 2008 vote to Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Paul Gentry of Danville told and NBC News last November that he voted for Republican Robert Hurt, who successfully unseated incumbent Rep. Tom Perriello in Virginia’s Fifth District, because the Democrat “was too close to the Obama administration, and I’m not too happy with a lot of things they’ve done.”

So what does Rep. Hurt do to distinguish himself from the administration? In February, as Gov. Kasich in Ohio and Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin staged high-profile, statehouse fights with organized labor, Rep. Hurt linked arms with die-hard congressional conservatives in a quiet effort to undercut unions nationwide.

Rep. Hurt also voted to prohibit funding for project labor agreements, or PLAs. These agreements require federal workers and managers to huddle before a construction project begins to settle differences in pay, safety standards, hours, and other on-the-job practices. The measure failed 210-210 on a roll call vote in the House.

Maybe some Danville voters support such union-busting tactics. But many of their Danville neighbors, who are hard-working conservative Americans, feel as if they’re being treated like immigrant workers in their own land. Surely many of them wonder what they were thinking by supporting politicians who fail them now.

Cupp, the Columbus cop, sees the future. “We’re being divided,” he said in his interview with The Dispatch. “Look for a backlash. It’s coming, and it’s coming against the Republicans.”

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.