I'm originally from the coal mining region of northeast Pennsylvania, and this was one place that needed a good union around the turn of the 20th century as much as Poland needed Solidarity in the 1980s. The UMW was very successful in initiating safety rules in the mines, workers rights, and the right to strike after a long struggle and a lot of violence. These were all things desperately needed at the time. Working conditions in the mines were deplorable, the mining companies owned the company stores that the workers shopped at, and owned the row houses they live in. It was a form of serfdom. Immigrants flocked to the area to work the mines from very diverse places like Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Russia, Italy and the many ethnic regions of the Hapsburg Empire. The numerous churches in the Scranton/Wilkes Barre/Hazleton Pennsylvania region, some more like grand cathedrals all built by immigrants who worked in menial low paying jobs, in their copious free time demonstrated their faith in God. Although these immigrants worked together in the mines, steel mills, and dress factories during the day, they usually stuck with their own outside that environment. They spoke their own language and worshiped in their own churches. They voted for politicians who supported their very narrow viewpoint, and ethnicity. Neither political party did a whole lot to help alleviate the awful work conditions, and depended on their particular ethnic minorities to get elected. Someone from Italy would never vote for one of those filthy Scots, and the Scots wouldn't vote for someone Welsh, let alone a Jew, and....well you get the picture. Politics was ethnic, not so much party oriented. Catholics, were almost exclusively Democrats, as were their politicians, and Protestants were Republicans and their clergy regularly preached politics from the pulpit. The average miner or steel worker knew nothing of politics other than their local council member, mayor, or police chief. They voted along ethnic lines. The union was the uniting force, and was necessary at the time to liberate the people working the mines and mills from serfdom. Neither the politicians of either party or the churches did much to stand up for the little guy.
That was then, this is now. Unions were and are still a part of American life, industry, and especially government. While once unions were organizations who fought against, sometimes literally, against thugs to stand up for decent living and working conditions for their members; now they stand up for very little more than bigger government and endless entitlements. Most unions are just fundraising organizations for the Democratic Party, lining their union leadership pockets with money, and grabbing political power nationally. Most private industry is now nonunion, due to competitive markets for skilled employees, and except in some large legacy companies in states that allow closed shops, union workers are few....Except in government. The biggest segment of union employees are now working for the taxpayer.
Oddly, people who I once grew up with who were so pro-union and and still vote along ethnic lines, have gotten very little for their political investment. Ok, Joe Mcdade (The John Murtha of the Republican party) brought a brand new Taj Mahal terminal to the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Airport with government pork, and it employed a few hundred people working union jobs over a few years, but these guys are now swilling beer at at 2 pm in the local saloon. And McDade though a nominal Republican, voted like a Democrat, And Gringrich stripped him of his position on the appropriations committee in 1995. But the big government guys have been screwing the people from my hometown for 60 years.
There have been revolts against government employee unions, most notably in Wisconsin, and the recent recall votes are heartening, but nothing like this is likely to happen in northeastern Pennsylvania, where all you is to have the last name Casey (Democrat) or Scranton (Republican) and you will get elected. Sad but true from an area that my 82 year old dad was just saying that this area was in a depression in 1938 is in one in 2011, and will be in 2111.
When I visited my hometown earlier this month, I talked to a lot of old friends, and most are yellow dog Democrats, and I asked them why they support the people who they do, and the answer was astounding. Educated people told me, because we have always been Democrats (or in a few cases Republicans) since their great grandfather immigrated to the USA. I inquired as to why they never looked at what the candidates actually stood for with a critical eye, and was greeted with blank looks and answers like, "Why are you asking, Keith? This is how we vote". There was no serious discussion of policy or issues amongst any of them.
Much like I can no longer go back to the church of my youth, I can't go back to a place that is rust belt poor area where I grew up. People there just keep voting what their unions, local politicians, and in many cases churches tell them.
Sometimes things evolve with time, sometime they stay stuck in an earlier era. In the area I grew up in, it is the later, They pine for the glories of the mines, railroads, and steel mills. Sometimes you can't go home again.