The fistfight at the Short Branch Saloon in Neenah began after Dan Wintheiser, a union worker at a manhole-cover foundry, altered a yard sign promoting Wisconsin’s governor to read “I Can’t Stand Walker.”
Wintheiser said he tried to stop the punch-up between workers and managers that he set off at a May 30 retirement party. Still, it drove home that no matter what happens in tomorrow’s recall election pitting Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett against Republican Scott Walker, Wisconsin won’t greet the next day’s sunrise in a spirit of peace and unity.
“I just see the divide getting deeper and deeper,” said Wintheiser, 50. He said there was a “huge fight” over the recall at his dinner table -- on Mothers’ Day.
While Americans have gone to the polls only twice to recall a governor -- in 2003 and 1921 -- those votes didn’t carry the national significance of tomorrow’s election. Organized labor is trying to halt nationwide momentum from Walker’s collective-bargaining restrictions on public-employee unions. Both parties see the election as a proxy for the presidential contest. And conservatives are embracing Walker as the standard-bearer for austerity and backing him with more than $30 million, most of it raised since January.
“We’re in a battle for freedom in this country,” Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin native and chairman of the Republican National Committee, told about 75 Walker supporters yesterday in Germantown. “We’re not only in a battle for the state of Wisconsin; we’re in a battle for the future of America.”
The recall effort that started last year after Walker pushed limits on unions through the Legislature has metamorphosed into a debate over the job climate and controlling the cost of government services. Most minds, according to polls, were made up long ago. Undecideds are a sliver of the electorate.
“This election, as we all know, will be determined by turnout,” said U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, a Democrat who campaigned with Barrett yesterday at a coffee shop in Oshkosh. “We’re fairly well evenly divided. That’s what Wisconsin is these days.”
Wisconsin, a hotbed of the early 20th century’s Progressive movement, is polarized. Voters recalled two Republican state senators last year of nine who were challenged. Walker will be up for an ouster vote along with Republican Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and four state senators from their party.
Barrett, 58, who lost the 2010 governor’s race to Walker by about 125,000 votes, said his opponent’s agenda “is all about the Tea Party. It’s all about making Wisconsin this experimental dish for all these radical notions.”
“He’s obsessed about becoming the rock star of the far right,” Barrett told about 60 supporters in the Oshkosh coffee shop.
At a strip mall along a freeway in Germantown, where women jumped up and down with Walker placards urging drivers to honk their horns, the governor quoted the Wisconsin constitution.
“Moderation and frugality in government leads to freedom and prosperity for our people,” he told cheering supporters. “And that’s what this is all about.”
A Walker victory would embolden labor opponents nationwide to continue chipping away at unions, including by weakening the National Labor Relations Board and banning requirements that workers pay dues, said William Jones, a historian of the movement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“We’ll certainly see those trends increasing,” Jones said. “The outcome of the recall election could have a big impact nationally.”
Labor is already on the defensive. Although Ohio voters last year repealed by 61 percent a law limiting bargaining and requiring increased pension and health-care insurance payments championed by Republican Governor John Kasich, it has lost ground elsewhere. Governor Mitch Daniels and fellow Republican lawmakers made Indiana the nation’s 23rd so-called right-to-work state Feb. 1 by exempting nonunion employees from paying dues when working alongside unionized colleagues.
The rate of U.S. union membership fell to a record low in 2011, with collective-bargaining units representing just 6.9 percent of employees in nongovernment jobs, down from 7.2 percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Wisconsin membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the state’s second-largest public union, fell to 28,745 in February from 62,818 in March 2011, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cited an anonymous source.
While membership has declined, the numbers published by the Journal are “wildly inaccurate,” Bob Allen, a spokesman for AFSCME Wisconsin, said in a telephone interview and e-mailed statement. The union doesn’t disclose its membership numbers, he said.
If Walker is recalled, it will be “a shot in the arm for labor,” said Robert Reich, who was labor secretary under Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Clinton campaigned for Barrett last week. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been part of a cadre of Republicans stumping for Walker.
Barrett and Walker hopscotched around the state today to encourage people to go to the polls. Election officials have forecast 60 to 65 percent of registered voters will cast ballots. While the recall will officially end with tomorrow’s vote, members of both parties said wounds will not heal quickly.
“People don’t want to respect other peoples’ opinions anymore,” Wintheiser, the foundry worker, said. “It’s become that contentious.”
Jean Barina, 64, a freelance court reporter from Milwaukee at Walker’s strip-mall rally, said there “will be hard feelings for a while.” As to how long that lasts, Barina said, “You’ll have to ask the Democrats that. We’re prepared to be at peace.”
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