The failure of a labor-backed effort to recall Wisconsin’s governor -- in which 28 percent of members defied their unions’ endorsement -- demonstrates a loss of political clout that may tempt other cash-strapped states to target public-worker benefits.
Republican Governor Scott Walker, whose successful efforts last year to restrict collective bargaining by public employees resulted in protesters occupying the statehouse, easily turned aside the June 5 challenge with 53 percent of the vote. At the same time, voters in California’s second- and third- most populous cities approved measures to curb public employee pension costs that unions had opposed.
“The unions are dinosaurs and a meteor just hit the Earth,” said Mordecai Lee, a government affairs professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The dinosaurs will slowly die out.”
With union membership rates falling to record lows, and a series of setbacks at the ballot box, the election results are sure to embolden opponents, Lee said. Unions failed to get their preferred candidate on the Wisconsin ballot in last month’s primary. In the general election, the labor-backed candidate, Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, was outspent by a margin of nine-to-one.
Labor leaders pointed at a bright spot: the possible recall of a Wisconsin state senator that would return the chamber to Democratic control if a slim election-night margin holds up.
Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, said the labor effort was hampered by voters who are simply turned off by the recall process.
“Recalls are pretty tough to win in a new era,” Trumka told reporters yesterday. “This election wasn’t about collective bargaining over the past month. I wish it had been.”
Organized labor in other states may be targeted next, as governors seek to cut workers’ benefits to balance budgets and take advantage of a flood of anti-union funding that could flow to their aid, Lee said.
Michigan could be the next battleground as workers push a ballot proposal to guarantee the collective-bargaining rights and stave off any Wisconsin-like legislation. Bills related to union membership have been introduced in 21 states during the 2012 legislative session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Legislators and governors who lived in fear of them will no longer live in such fear,” said Henry Olsen, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute and director of its National Research Initiative.
Other states have sought to strip workers’ rights. Indiana in February adopted a proposal that allows workers to avoid paying union dues, while Ohio last year passed legislation to limit collective bargaining. Unions fought back, winning a referendum that repealed the Ohio law.
Public-sector unions are one of the few growth areas for labor, as autoworkers and steelmakers have been replaced by service providers. Government employees became a majority of U.S. union members in 2009 and are an important source of votes and donations for Democrats.
Walker, 44, elected in 2010, pushed legislation last year that required annual recertification votes by a majority of all members for public-employee union representation and made payment of membership dues voluntary.
Union membership in Wisconsin had fallen to 13.3 percent of the workforce last year. That was above the national average of 11.8 percent, though down from 14.2 percent in the state a year earlier, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Democrats and union workers responded to Walker’s efforts by turning Madison, the state’s capital, into a flurry of protests, with a tent city and street-theater rallies against Walker. Unions led the effort to collect 900,000 signatures to force the recall vote, setting up a rematch of the 2010 race between Walker and Barrett.
The unions initially backed former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who lost by 24 points to Walker in last month’s primary. In the four-week general election tens of millions of dollars poured into the state, largely for Walker. Exit polls by CNN showed that 28 percent of union members, and 37 percent of voters living in households with a union member, backed Walker.
President Barack Obama stayed out of Wisconsin during the general election and posted a single item of support on Twitter this week. With union workers already supporting him, Obama may have worried about alienating the few undecided votes in the tight race he faces in November, Olsen said
Obama was favored over Romney, 51 percent to 44 percent, among those who voted in Wisconsin, according to the CNN exit poll. Obama won the state by 14 percentage points in 2008.
“If I were David Axelrod, I would have told Obama to do as little as possible here,” Olsen said of Obama’s chief campaign strategist. “Why insert yourself into a fight if you can’t change minds anyway?”
Trumka said Obama’s efforts in Wisconsin left some union workers with mixed feelings.
Organized labor has less money than it used to and fewer options for whom to support, Lee said. The AFL-CIO has already endorsed Obama’s re-election over Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
“Labor unions are no longer a vital contributor to the Democratic Party,” Lee said. “Right now the pendulum is swinging farther to the right.”
The first U.S. governor to successfully fend off a recall, Walker, will probably emerge stronger as a champion of limited government and scourge of public-employee unions, Lee said. He is also becoming more a national figure while also gathering more political capital with the win.
“You aim to kill the king, you better not miss,” Lee said. “Here they tried to kill the king and they lost.”