The first vote hasn’t been cast in the recall election of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, yet labor unions already are offering excuses for why their efforts to oust him could fall short.
The election is no longer a fight over workers’ rights to engage in collective bargaining, which sparked the recall, union leaders say. The debate has turned to the economy and negative campaigning. In addition, they say, recall supporters are facing a significant financial disadvantage after Walker raised more than $20 million this year -- five times that of his opponent -- in his quest to keep his job.
“The election is about a vicious mud fight between two candidates,” Michael Podhorzer, the political director of the Washington-based AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, said in an interview. “It is not a verdict on collective bargaining at all.”
Walker is leading Democratic challenger Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, by 7 percentage points among likely voters, according to a poll released May 30 by Milwaukee’s Marquette Law School.
The outcome of the June 5 recall vote is important because other Republican governors are likely to take a more aggressive posture toward public employees’ unions if Walker prevails --and some already have with mixed success.
Insight Into November
“If Walker wins, the Republicans will think they have an opening,” said Edward Miller, a politics professor at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. “It will embolden other governors and will give insight into the presidential election, with the thought that Romney can win Wisconsin.”
In November, Ohio voters repealed a law pushed by Governor John Kasich, a former Republican congressman, that lifted collective bargaining for public employees. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie signed a law increasing pension and health care expenses paid by workers.
The governors say such changes are needed to deal with declining state revenue after the longest recession since the 1930s. Labor leaders say it’s part of an effort to diminish the influence of unions, which traditionally support Democratic candidates.
“If Walker wins, everything the unions have done over 18 months have still led to annihilation,” said Mordecai Lee, a government affairs professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. “This is ‘High Noon.’”
Union Membership Decline
The rate of U.S. union membership fell to a record low in 2011, and labor unions represent just 6.9 percent of employees in private companies, down from 7.2 percent in 2009.
The showdown, only the third gubernatorial recall in U.S. history, follows Walker’s passage of legislation last year that requires annual recertification votes by a majority of all members for public employee union representation. It also makes payment of membership dues voluntary.
After the bill’s passage, Madison, Wisconsin’s capital and a university town, turned into a hub of activism with daily protests, runaway Democratic lawmakers, street theater and a tent city near the Capitol building that union members and other protesters dubbed “Walkerville.”
Walker’s adversaries used that energy to collect 900,000 signatures to force a referendum on the governor’s performance.
“It’s important to send a message to other people who want to make radical attacks on working people,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, the secretary-treasurer for the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
Barrett Primary Victory
Barrett, who lost to Walker 18 months ago, survived a May 8 primary challenge from Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, a favorite of labor, to set up a rematch.
Since then, the campaign debate has expanded beyond the labor issue to include unemployment and environmental concerns, said Tony Cornelius, the president of Teamsters Local Union 662 in Green Bay. In addition, Walker has started drawing attention to crime rates in Milwaukee during Barrett’s tenure.
“There’s a lot of other things on the table,” Cornelius said.
Walker also is trying to trumpet his record on jobs. In a report prepared by his administration and released this month, Walker claims the state gained 23,321 jobs last year, countering the Bureau of Labor Statistics which documented 33,900 in lost jobs.
“The emphasis in the campaign has moved off the unions and moved to other things the governor has done in policy matters,” Miller said. “There’s greater concern about other things, like jobs.”
Money has flooded in from around the U.S. Bob Perry, the Houston-based owner of Perry Homes and a supporter of the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth ads that attacked the war record of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in the 2004 Democratic presidential election, donated $500,000 to Walker, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chief Executive Officer Sheldon Adelson, who supported former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the Republican presidential primary, gave $250,000.
Walker took in more than $20 million in loans and contributions this year, compared to Barrett’s less than $4 million, according to state disclosure reports.
Podhorzer said the AFL-CIO’s contribution is “trivial” compared with Walker’s fundraising, though he declined to specify the total. Barrett is having trouble attracting out-of-state Democratic money when most are focused on the presidential race, said Miller.
With just days left, unions will need to push turnout similar to 2008 levels, when nearly 3 million Wisconsinites voted, if they have a chance to beat Walker, Lee said.
“Symbolism doesn’t count for bupkis in politics,” Lee said. “For unions, it’s death or survival.”