Political Lowe-down: Will recall election be labor’s last stand?

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MADISON -- At its heart, the gubernatorial recall campaign in Wisconsin is about the struggle between labor and management. After all, the whole thing began when Gov. Scott Walker introduced his budget repair bill, stripping collective bargaining powers away from public employees. Now, the upcoming recall election is being viewed as a decisive battle for the labor movement.

The recent release of a video clip from a documentary film put the spotlight on Gov. Walker's motivations for cutting collective bargaining. When asked by a billionaire donor to his campaign if he could make Wisconsin a right-to-work state, he said he would start with public unions and then use a "divide-and-conquer" strategy.

The labor movement sees the statement as proof that Walker wants to bust unions. Walker says he has no intention of making Wisconsin a right-to-work state. Either way, the recall election is being viewed as the decisive battle in this struggle. Will it be labor's last stand?

From the Capitol protesters to the election between Justice Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg, and from the "Occupy Movement" to the Tea Party Movement, to recounts and recalls, the last year in Wisconsin has been a series of smaller skirmishes in a building political war - a war that will reach its end point on recall election day, June 5th.

"What we have in Wisconsin is this very decisive battle. I think this is labor's last stand," UW-Milwaukee Professor of Governmental Affairs Mordecai Lee said.

The labor movement is staking all of its political clout on the recall of Gov. Walker. If Walker wins, the labor movement will be mortally wounded, having spent millions in money, manpower, effort and energy, all for nothing. "If Walker retains power, it will be a crushing blow to the labor movement," Associate Professor of Law at Marquette University Paul Secunda said.

If the unions win, it could essentially stop similar anti-union legislation in its tracks. "It sends a clear message to the right-wing groups that are fronting this assault. That workers aren't just going to stand by and watch their rights be stripped away," Richard Abelson, executive director of AFSCME District Council 48 said.

AFSCME District Council 48 represents all Milwaukee County and city of Milwaukee employees. He says he knows the recall is important, but says it's not all-important. "Walker took his best shot at us and we're still standing, so this is not a make-or-break moment for the labor movement.  The fact of the matter is that the recall is far broader than the governor's recall. It's about the process of taking back our state," Abelson said.

Various unions worked together with the Democratic Party, driving the recall petition process, collecting nearly a million signatures to force the recall election, breathing life into a waning movement.

Phil Neuenfeldt is the president of Wisconsin's AFL-CIO, which represents 250,000 workers in Wisconsin. "What's interesting about Wisconsin is this is a classic confrontation of wealth versus people power. This movement will grow, and it will continue to grow. Whether we defeat Scott Walker or not, we have an agenda," Neuenfeldt said.

There are unique circumstances that made Wisconsin "Ground Zero" in the labor war.

  • First, a 50-50 electorate. "This state of Wisconsin is where it is playing out because we do have all the players equally represented. The power is so evenly divided that each side thinks they can win this battle," Secunda (Marquette) said.
  • Second, Wisconsin is the birthplace of AFSCME, and has a rich history of labor peace. "The dynamics are different. The union density is different," Neuenfeldt (AFSCME) said.
  • Third, a wave election brought a bold and brash young governor, who wouldn't back down.

Add to that the spectacle of a capital city that revels in protest politics.

"Governor Dreyfuss once said Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality. I think it's an overwhelmingly liberal base. It's completely different politically from other parts of the state -- even Milwaukee. You have the University of Wisconsin just a few blocks down the way. You have a lot of public employees at the state level there, and you have a lot of people a generation ago who were into protesting other issues. All those things converged at the same time and you had 14 senators that took off and left for a month," Walker said.

As for the recall election being "labor's last stand," Walker said: "I don't know if it's the end or not, but that's what threatens them. They're fearful, particularly in Washington, because most of their money comes by forcing it at the local level. They're fearful that if public workers are given the choice, most of them are going to choose to keep their own money, and I don't blame them," Walker said.

Walker says his move was actually about protecting workers by preventing unions from taking mandatory money out of their paychecks. He also argues that it protected taxpayers by giving the government the ability to get competitive bids on health insurance and gave school boards flexibility on hiring and firing decisions. Unions and Democrats see something much more sinister.

They see an effort to bust the unions. "It's simply about trying to seize political power. It's about smashing dissent," Neuenfeldt (AFL-CIO) said.

Because unions are by far the largest donors to the Democratic Party, the move would also cripple the Democrats. "Governors come and go, but the institution stays. This isn't labor's last stand by any stretch of the imagination," Abelson (AFSCME) said.

The results of the recall are sure to ripple across the country. So far this year, labor has had mixed results. Democrats lost their bid to take control of the Wisconsin State Senate in a round of recalls last summer. Union power roared back in Ohio, where a statewide referendum repealed a law limiting collective bargaining rights. Unions suffered a violent blow when Indiana became the first state in more than a decade to pass right-to-work legislation.

Democratic candidate for governor Tom Barrett says that's Walker's ultimate goal. "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that what Governor Walker did, again, using his words, not mine 'dropped the bomb' that that was the beginning of a divide and conquer strategy that was intended to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state," Barrett said.

Barrett says that denial and $1.50 will get you a bus fare. "His playbook is very similar to what has happened in Indiana, where one of his mentors, Mitch Daniels eliminated collective bargaining for public employees, and for years he denied he was in favor of making Indiana a right-to-work state," Barrett said.

So labor is loaded for bare, even if they're not ready to label the recall a "last stand." "I think there's been a line drawn in the sand that if, at this point, the unions can't be victorious, the way they were in Ohio, then there's going to be some real issues for the future of unionism in this country," Secunda (Marquette) said.

Not even union foes are suggesting that if Walker wins the recall election it will somehow immediately eliminate unions. There will still be unions, the question is, what will they look like?

A victory would give the labor movement new strength, and particularly in Wisconsin, could serve as momentum going into the presidential election.

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