Labor leaders, after getting voters to repeal an Ohio law restricting collective bargaining, begin training their sights tomorrow on Wisconsin, where they face a tougher battle to unseat Republican Governor Scott Walker.
“The energy and the galvanizing and the commitment, it will carry over into Wisconsin,” said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, in a telephone interview. “I think we’ll see the same results coming from the citizens of Wisconsin.”
Walker, 44, who took office in January, drew the wrath of unions and faced protests after pushing through a measure similar to the one overturned last week in Ohio. Without the option to hold a referendum on the law, a coalition of Wisconsin citizens is going after the governor instead.
The groups start gathering petition signatures tomorrow, and they need more than 540,000 in 60 days to get the recall on the ballot in a state with a voting-age population of 4.3 million. Then they would probably have four to six months to get behind an alternative candidate and attempt to unseat a governor at the polls for the first time in state history.
“The example of Ohio puts a little breeze at our back,” said Graeme Zielinski, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Still, he said, Democrats aren’t taking anything for granted. “This is a high hurdle,” he said.
Republicans said any comparison between Ohio’s vote on a specific law and the effort to recall Walker is “ridiculous,” in part because Ohio’s measure never took effect.
“The Democrats are clearly desperate to manufacture momentum for their recall attempt,” Stephan Thompson, executive director of the state Republican Party, said in a statement. “Wisconsin voters have proved over and over again that they trust the Republicans to put our economy back on track.”
Walker’s press office didn’t return phone and e-mail messages late last week.
The Wisconsin law limits collective bargaining by public employees other than police and firefighters. Last August, voters ousted two of six Republican state senators targeted in a recall election, short of the number Democrats needed to take control of the chamber.
Democrats are aiming for a Walker recall vote to be held as early as May, Zielinski said. In both phases, the support of union workers who can work in communities across Wisconsin may be crucial.
‘Every Nook and Cranny’
The firefighters’ union spent more than $2 million in Ohio and had members in “every nook and cranny” of the state working on the issue, Schaitberger said. The local leadership in Wisconsin will decide the course, and the national office is prepared to deliver what’s needed, he said.
“We’ll be all in,” Schaitberger said. “We’ll come in with every resource that we need to get the job done.”
The unions may face better organized, better funded opponents in Wisconsin. In Ohio, contributions to the campaign seeking to repeal the collective bargaining law reached $30.6 million as of Oct. 25, compared with $7.6 million on the other side, according to reports filed with the Ohio secretary of state’s office.
“The anti-union side totally blew it, didn’t have enough money, didn’t have a message that might resonate,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a communication professor at Boston University. “When you have one side energized to the max and the other side taking their eye off the ball, this is what happens.”
Berkovitz cautioned against reading the results in Ohio as a wave in favor of the Democrats. Indeed, at the same time the state’s voters supported the unions, they backed a measure aimed at blocking President Barack Obama’s health-care law.
More voters sided against Obama than with the unions, Republicans said. That’s important “if you’re looking for where there is real emotion, as opposed to where there is a lopsided campaign,” said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster.
The unions emphasize their ability to spread out to communities across the state. Schaitberger went to Ohio for the last five days before the Nov. 8 election, visiting 16 cities on a bus tour. Top leaders of Wisconsin’s AFL-CIO also went to the state, joined by members of various unions.
“They will be able to spend more money than we can, but we have more members,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary- treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO. She said face-to-face contacts were critical in Ohio. “When people start talking to people, that has a lasting effect.”
It’s likely that unions and their allies will get enough signatures to trigger the recall vote, said Andrew Kersten, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay who teaches courses in U.S. labor history. Whether Walker then prevails in an election depends on how well opponents get out the vote and who’s on the ballot, he said.
Bloomingdale said her members are newly inspired.
“Ohio’s win sent a real spark into Wisconsin and really showed us that we can do this,” she said.
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