Organized labor suffered a crushing blow with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) victory in Tuesday’s recall election, a possible sign of their fading power and a worrying result for union supporters ahead of November’s presidential election.
“They picked a fight they weren't able to win,” said Gary Chaison, a labor expert at Clark University. “This shows them at their weakest. They'll try to put a happy face on this but this is nothing less than a calamity for them.”
Unions combined to spend more than $10 million on the race and were the driving force behind the recall effort. But even in Wisconsin, long a bastion for organized labor and the birthplace of public-employee unions, they couldn’t defeat a governor whose defining achievement was stripping public workers of their collective bargaining rights.
The fight to recall Walker was the biggest battle labor has waged in years — and to their credit, Democratic turnout was sky-high Tuesday. But Republicans managed to outpace them, aided by nearly $30 million spent by Walker.
Democrats and unions were outspent by a two-to-one margin by the governor and his allies in the race, the most expensive in Wisconsin history.
Much of unions’ diminishing political strength stems from a loss in membership, which has been on the decline for decades. Last year, just 12 percent of American workers were union members, down from more than one-third in the 1950s and about 20 percent in the early 1980s.
Public-sector unions have been largely immune to the economic pressures others have faced, and because of that have become an increasingly crucial part of the union coalition — making Walker’s law even more dangerous to them. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that public-sector union membership has dropped by more than half in the year since Walker instituted his reforms, a huge blow to labor in the state.
Similar reforms in other states could further decimate unions — and Chaison predicted Walker’s win would encourage politicians to press such measures.
“The loss means a lot more mayors and governors will probably feel comfortable pushing on legislation like this,” he said. “It's very different from 20 years ago. Back then the public-sector unions were a force to be reckoned with. Nowadays, public officials look at the unions as someone to be opposed to.”
Rep. Gwen MooreGwen Sophia MoorePentagon 'aware' of reports Wisconsin military base's struggle to feed, heat Afghan refugees Wisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans Pelosi picks Democrats for special panel tackling inequality MORE (D-Wis.) said before the results that a Walker win would give other Republicans encouragement to fight harder against unions.
“It will embolden other Tea Party types to continue the work that he’s already started,” she told The Hill last Thursday.
Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s Tuesday night statement following Walker’s win showed that Moore could be right.
“Governor Walker has shown that citizens and taxpayers can fight back — and prevail — against the runaway government costs imposed by labor bosses,” he said. “Tonight, voters said ‘no’ to the tired, liberal ideas of yesterday, and ‘yes’ to fiscal responsibility and a new direction.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pointed to the big cash edge Republicans had in the race as the top reason for his side’s defeat Tuesday evening.
“Adding to this gargantuan challenge of recalling only the third governor in American history was the flood of secret corporate cash distorting our democracy — a dangerous example of a post-Citizens United America,” he said in a statement, referring to the Supreme Court case that allowed unlimited donations into campaigns.
“We wanted a different outcome, but Wisconsin forced the governor to answer for his efforts to divide the state and punish hard-working people. … The challenge to solve a generation of economic policies and create an economy that celebrates hard work over a partisan agenda gained momentum today,” Trumka said.
One Democratic strategist who works with unions defended their muscle, pointing to a victory late last year in repealing a law backed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) that was similar to Walker’s. He also rattled off a series of union victories: stopping “right to work” legislation in New Hampshire and Minnesota, stalling the Florida legislature’s efforts to privatize their prison system, and the two state Senate seats unions picked up in last year’s Wisconsin recall efforts.
“Ask John Kasich if labor doesn't have the muscle they used to,” he said when asked if Walker’s win meant unions were in decline.
Unions will be a major player this fall — organized labor spent more than $200 million in 2008 and have committed to spending heavily on behalf of their favored candidates this election. But if membership continues to shrink long-term, their political power will do so as well — and more Republican legislative attacks could hasten that slide.