Mitt Romney’s announcement yesterday morning that conservative hero Paul Ryan will be his running mate has elicited the predictable ecstasies from the likes of Bill Kristol and Erik Erikson who have been noisily agitating on Ryan's behalf, and set all the right fires burning among the base. Whether or not this is the right strategy, it rebuts the claim that Romney’s tack to the hard right during this campaign was opportunist political schtick, and shows that he's doubled down on winning on a unquestionably conservative platform (though my colleague Noam Scheiber does have another theory).
But there’s an ugly blemish in Paul Ryan’s otherwise sterling conservative credentials: He’s a union man. Sort of.
In his home state, Ryan has had a cozy relationship with union contractors that stretches back to his days at his family's construction firm in Janesville, WI--Ryan Incorporated Central--which relies heavily on union labor. Back in 2009, in an article about his rising prominence in the party, he said, “A lot of conservatives just think unions are nothing but bad. That's just not true.... They're people who are just trying to make their lives better, people trying to collectively negotiate a better standard of living for themselves. What the heck is wrong with that?"
His position on this wasn’t just idle chatter to sweet talk the folks back home either. Last year Ryan broke with his party and voted to uphold the Davis-Bacon Act, which protects union wages on federally funded projects. As Suzy Khimm reported at the time:
Since he was first elected to Congress in 1998, Ryan has been a staunch supporter of the Davis-Bacon Act, which prevents federally funded construction projects from undercutting the prevailing union wages in any local area. Republicans have been pushing to repeal Davis-Bacon for years, claiming that it benefits unions at the expense of taxpayers. In a handful of states, GOP lawmakers have already succeeded in overturning state versions of the law. But as recently as February, Ryan joined 47 other Republicans and 185 Democrats to oppose overturning Davis-Bacon, defeating the repeal bill.
As Khimm goes on to say, this vote followed a distinct trend of Ryan looking out for unionized construction workers. That said, his fondness for the unionized working man has been a narrow one. Outside of the moments when he’s looked out the construction workers, in which he arguably has some vested interest, there’s been little love for teachers and government workers. He stood firmly behind Governor Scott Walker in his fight against Wisconsin's public sector unions, and in a press release following the announcement yesterday, the National Education Association attacked, claiming, "Ryan has repeatedly supported cuts to education funding, including blocking support intended to help avoid educator layoffs and prevent ballooning class sizes." (They gave him an "F" in their annual appraisal last year.)
It's worth noting that the unions that Ryan has been most cordial towards, the building trade unions, have traditionally tended to be whiter and more conservative than many of their counterparts, falling closer to the Republican base. That said, Ryan's position of at least dealing with organized labor back home was once not so far out of step within the GOP, especially in the North. That his stance is exceptional at all is a sign of how the party has shifted.
Whatever affinity Ryan may have for unionized labor, it’s become a very one sided affair. While general contractors have been the fifteenth highest contributors to his campaigns over the course of his career, they don’t even break the top twenty this cycle. The AFL CIO gave him a rating of 28% last year for his positions on union issues. None of which is particularly surprising, given the extent to which Ryan’s profile has been built on his plans to eviscerate programs like medicare, social security, and the new health care law, all of which are traditional staples of the union agenda, which they’ve promised to go to bat for. As the news of Ryan being the pick spread, you could almost hear unions all around their country sharpening their knives.