In North Carolina, organized labor never really got off the ground.
To be sure, we had plenty of the kinds of workplaces that in Ohio, say, would tend to be union strongholds - textile mills, cigarette and furniture factories. Unions made some inroads here, occasionally in the face of violent resistance.
But the state's conservative culture with its rural and small town base, the political influence of union-averse businesses and the proud sense of individual self-reliance that characterized many working people all were among the factors that kept union membership to a minimum. The decline of traditional manufacturing did nothing to boost labor's prospects.
Today North Carolina maintains its distinction of being the country's least-unionized state. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that last year, 3.2 percent of the state's workers were union members - some 117,000 people. If workers on public payrolls belonged to unions, that figure assuredly would be higher. But North Carolina's various units of government are not allowed to sign union contracts covering their own workforces.
So where are unions strong these days? Strength is relative, but the states with the highest percentages of union workers in 2010 were New York, Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, California and New Jersey, with levels ranging from 24.2 percent down to 17.1 percent. Large, heavily unionized public employee sectors clearly figured into the pattern.
Also part of the pattern: Lots of Democratic blue. Which goes a long way towards explaining why Republican politicians are so eager to take the unions down a peg. Which, these days, means tangling with public employees.
The recent crisis in Wisconsin, instigated by a bumptious GOP governor egged on by union-loathing business interests, could become a template. When defeated protestors finally left the statehouse, Wisconsin's public sector unions were on the point of being eviscerated. A law signed last week by Ohio's governor cracks down on public employees even harder.
Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker, writing in the March 7 issue, noted the BLS' recent finding that public employee union membership for the first time outnumbers union membership in the nation's private sector.
That is not because the former unions have grown, but because the latter ones have shrunk. (About one in three public employees belongs to a union, but only one in 15 on the private side.) Unionized public employees have seen their political clout rise accordingly - but those days may be numbered, especially if the union-busting proceeds apace.
Republicans stoke resentment over the notion that public employee unions and Democratic pols have engaged in mutual backscratching at taxpayers' expense.
No doubt there's some truth to that. But it's not surprising when employees support officeholders who favor better wages, benefits and working conditions. Certainly there is evidence of what can happen when public employees, such as many in North Carolina, don't have the leverage to stay out of budget-cutters' line of fire. For one thing, they might take a hit on health insurance.
Hertzberg pointed this out: In 2008, unions with members drawn from the public sector were the two largest campaign contributors among groups not affiliated with a political party. They leaned Democratic. The next three largest groups, all GOP-inclined, had business ties.
But after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision last year cleared the way for corporations and unions to finance independent campaigns directly from their treasuries, only one union was among the top five contributors in the 2010 elections. And it ranked fifth.
Clearly, the unions will have trouble taking advantage of their new campaign spending freedom. They just don't have as much money as the corporations that are financing the politicians who are trying to snuff them out.
Having flung open the campaign spending door for the likes of billionaire conservative activists Charles and David Koch, not to mention our distinguished conservative homeboy Art Pope, the Supreme Court now appears ready to whack away at laws that provide for public campaign financing.
The court last week heard a challenge to Arizona's "clean elections" system, which channels matching public funds to participating candidates if they're being outspent by their non-participating opponents. Absent such a feature, public financing would be attractive mainly to chumps. If the Arizona law goes down, the ripples could extend to North Carolina, where candidates for appellate judgeships and some Council of State posts can qualify for public financing and so-called rescue funds.
Public financing reduces the influence of special interests in elections. Tar Heel Republicans don't tend to like it, although independent expenditures from the likes of Pope can sooth their feelings.
North Carolina's public employees and their associations can try to stand against the conservative tide with campaign contributions and shoe leather. Their jobs may be at stake, along with the services they provide. But the real battles will be fought in the big union states, where Republicans are determined to chop a pillar from the Democratic base. Right now, you'd have to say the wood chips are flying.