Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s victory over a recall challenge Tuesday should be a wake-up call for organized labor and the Democratic Party.
Walker, a rising star in the Republican Party, became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall attempt with his defeat of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Union leaders rallied for months against Walker, who sparked the recall effort after successfully pushing laws that eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public-sector workers.
In addition to his anti-union measures, Walker repealed a law giving discrimination victims more ways to sue for damages, made deep cuts to funds for public schools and higher education, and required voters to show photo identification at the polls.
His victory will likely embolden Republican governors in other states to take similar positions.
The governor’s victory was a disappointing defeat for the Democrats and organized labor, which spent millions against Walker but were overwhelmingly outspent by Republicans from across the country who raised more than $30 million to Barrett’s $4 million.
But it is important not to underestimate Walker’s victory, either.
It is difficult to recall an incumbent. This was only the third gubernatorial recall in U.S. history. Exit polls showed that many of those who opposed the recall disagreed with Walker’s political stance. Exit polls also showed that most Wisconsin voters still support President Obama over Mitt Romney.
Republicans and big business are well organized, mobilized and prepared for a fight. They have been successful in communicating an antiunion message to the public. Walker’s antiunion actions sparked a successful grassroots movement in Wisconsin that fell short when it turned into a more conventional political campaign.
Wisconsin is also the result of the post-U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that allows corporations and multimillionaires to give unlimited sums of money to conservative causes.
Labor and the Democrats will not be able to counter such a well financed onslaught unless they are proactive in proposing pension and other reforms and clearly explain to financially strapped taxpayers why antiunion measures are not in their best interests.
Despite record-setting corporate profits, many workers face stagnating wages and rising insecurity on the job.
Some Americans see organized labor as part of the problem and not part of the solution. Labor is perceived by some as too stubborn, demanding and unnecessary.
A Pew Research Center for the People & the Press poll released last year found that more Democrats have more favorable views of unions (56 percent) than do independents (38 percent) or Republicans (29 percent).
A greater percentage of African Americans have a more favorable view of unions (59 percent) than whites (37 percent).
A Gallup poll released last year found that a slim majority of Americans, 52 percent, approve of labor unions.
Labor will continue to lose the public relations and legislative battles until it shows how average workers, both union and nonunion, lose when unions are weak. The Economic Policy Institute finds that economic inequality has corresponded to the rise and fall of unionization in the United States “to a remarkable extent.”
“The passage in 1935 of the National labor Relations Act, which protected and encouraged unions, sparked a wave of unionization that led to three decades of shared prosperity and what some call the Great Compression: when the share of national income taken by the very rich was cut by one-third,” said Ross Einsenbrey and Colin Gordon of EPI. The “countervailing power” of labor unions (not just at the bargaining table, but in local, state, and national politics) gave them the ability to raise wages and working standards for members and non-members alike.”
However, over the past 30 years, labor’s bargaining power has collapsed, union membership has fallen and income inequality has worsened — “reaching levels not seen since the 1920s.”