Salena Zito

Philadelphia – Three years ago, almost to the day, candidate Barack Obama told an AFL-CIO convention here, “It's time we had a president who didn't choke saying the word 'union.’”

Amid feverish chants of “Yes we can!” he then threw the crowd the raw meat it wanted: his support for the Employee Free Choice Act.

“I will make it the law of the land when I'm president of the United States," Obama promised.

Battling union Obama-skeptics at the time, Bill George, then president of Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO, whispered: “We will need to do an all-out effort to educate our members, that he will make card-check” – slang for EFCA – “happen for working families, to win this in November.”

A promise made where organized labor began, in 1827 behind Independence Hall, was not a promise kept. In fact, it was never even brought up in the 111th Congress.

The last time card-check saw life was in 2007, when it passed the House but died in the Senate.

Democrats count on unions in every election. Last fall’s midterm exit polling showed that households with at least one union voter did not show at the polls; their numbers were down a staggering 6 points from the 2006 midterm.

That anemic turnout contributed to the Democrats’ thrashing in local, state and federal races across the country, leaving Democrats to wonder how to re-energize their union base.

Enter Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin: By deciding to take on public-sector unions, he awakened their sleeping masses.

Obama’s campaign arm, the Democratic National Committee/Organizing for America, swung into action; turnouts for rallies were built, phone banks organized, signs made, union members from around the country bused to Wisconsin’s capitol, in matching-color t-shirts.

Wisconsin Senate Democrats ran away to avoid a vote on the budget, soon followed by Democrats in Indiana’s state legislature.

“I know the Indiana State Democratic Party has been pouring money into the support of its hold-out legislators … camping out in the stronghold of Democratic political refugees, Illinois,” says Purdue University political science professor Bert Rockman.

The DNC/OFA is funneling money to state parties in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, Rockman says.

Have Democrats found their 2012 version of the Tea Party – something to ramp-up their base and independent voters as Republican governors in state after state take on broke state budgets?

(They certainly could use something: A Reuters poll late last week showed Obama’s approval rating among independents diving to 37 percent, down 10 points from the previous month.)

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.