(MintPress) – Earlier this month, Wisconsin voted decisively to keep Governor Scott Walker in office for the remainder of his term, a decision that has dealt a blow to organized labor and perhaps for President Barack Obama’s hopes for re-election this November.
After deciding to nullifying collective bargaining agreements for public sector employees, Walker set off a firestorm of union protests and grass root political action in an effort to recall him from office. However, the proliferation of major out-of-state funding, coupled with a public that has grown weary of an exhaustive recall process, ultimately led to Walker’s survival against his Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett.
Major contributors, many from out of state, poured money into the race, a move that may enliven discussions about the need for comprehensive campaign finance reform. However, many believe the more significant implication will be the crippling blow dealt to organized labor, a movement that has been in a steady decline for the past three decades.
A record 58 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the historic June 5 recall election. Walker captured the lion’s share of voters who were, not surprisingly, more conservative and non-union. However, around 25 percent of voters belonging to private sector unions actually voted for Walker, surprising many who saw unions, both public and private, as the backbone of Barrett support. Additionally, while many in Wisconsin oppose the policies of Walker, some disagreed with the recall process, believing that voters should wait until the next regularly scheduled election to remove elected officials from office.
Approximately 1,334,450 votes were cast for Walker, comprising 53.1 percent of the vote. Conversely, the defeated Democrat Tom Barrett pulled in 1,162,785 votes, or 46.3 percent.
Unions, particularly those representing public sector employees, maintained optimism despite the clear defeat. In a recent statement, representatives of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO made their commitments clear, saying,
“Today the people of Wisconsin flipped the State Senate in support of working people and middle class families,” said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO.
Continuing, Neuenfeldt said, “The Wisconsin Movement is just that, a movement, and it will continue to change, grow and adapt to hold politicians accountable and continue the fight for working families all across Wisconsin. The systematic dismantling of democracy by those who want to crush the working middle class will not stand. Dark clouds of extremism may temporarily obscure the horizon, but the bright light of American values—equality, economic justice, country over self—will inevitably shine through. In the spirit of true patriotism, with every confidence in the people of Wisconsin and our nation, we fight on.”
Stephanie Bloomingdale, Secretary-Treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, added to this sentiment, saying, “History will show that this recall attempt did not end in vain. We were outspent 8 to 1 and defied the odds amidst a flood of secret corporate dollars. While out-of-state millionaires and billionaires may have bought this election for Gov. Walker, this is only the beginning of working people standing up and standing together to put a check on the ever-growing corporate control of politics. We take great pride in the unprecedented grassroots effort that mobilized hundreds of thousands of people across the state in defense of economic justice. We look with hope toward a future in which the movement that we have created continues to resist the extremist agenda that Scott Walker and his billionaire ideologue backers want to force on Wisconsin and America.”
While the differences in spending were considerable, many, even on the political left acknowledge that this excuse has been overstated. Doug Henwood, a contributor for the Left Business Observer writes:
“But lingering too long on the money explanation is too easy. Several issues must be stared down. One is the horrible mistake of channeling a popular uprising into electoral politics. As I wrote almost a year ago (Wisconsin: game over?): ‘It’s the same damn story over and over. The state AFL-CIO chooses litigation and electoral politics over popular action, which dissolves everything into mush. Meanwhile, the right is vicious, crafty, and uncompromising. Guess who wins that sort of confrontation?’”
Additionally, the GOP appears to have hit a chord with conservative voters who by and large seemed to agree with framing the argument in terms of, “Not letting big labor tell them what to do.” Framing the argument in this way, many contend, contributed to a decisive Walker victory.
While the AFL-CIO and sympathetic supporters did support the recall from the get-go, the enormous effort that set the recall vote into motion had all the trappings of a viable social movement. Some contend that the popular action which led to the ill-fated game of electoral politics was one of the forerunners to the later Occupy movement.
The recall: Occupy before Occupy
The monumental effort to recall Governor Scott Walker began in early 2011, when the 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 was signed into law. The legislation directly hindered workers’ ability to collectively bargain. Additionally, the measure cut compensation, retirement, health insurance and sick leave for public sector employees.
The protests that ensued were large in scale, with an estimated 100,000 people assembling during some of the February demonstrations around the state capitol in Madison. Protests in solidarity were held by unions and sympathetic student organizations across the state, including large student protests at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The protests were cited to have represented “the largest sustained mass rallies for public workers in the history of the United States and the biggest outpouring of labor activism since the 1930’s,” according to The Progressive.
When the Wisconsin State Supreme Court upheld the law, labor unions, students and pro-labor activists launched a grassroots campaign to recall Scott Walker from office. The movement collected more than one million petition signatures from Wisconsin residents in support of the recall election.
The use of the gubernatorial recall has been infrequently used, as it is generally difficult to assemble the necessary public support to even hold the vote. Previously, the action has been used twice in the recall of Lynn Frazier (South Dakota, 1921) and Grey Davis (California, 2003). Both governors were defeated in their respective recall elections, making Walker the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall vote.
While the defeat of the recall effort represents a resounding defeat for labor, earlier efforts to quash collective bargaining agreements have been promoted in various forms, especially during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. One such event, reminiscent of the defeat is the 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization.
Regan and Air Traffic Controllers: An important precedent
On August 3, 1981 the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization (PATCO) decided to go on strike, demanding better pay, better working conditions and a 32-hour workweek. Additionally, the PATCO union wanted to suspend the civil service clause that forbids government workers from striking.
The violation of this clause led to President Ronald Reagan firing all 11,345 striking air traffic controllers by invoking the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act which forbids federal employees from going on strike. Additionally, President Reagan banned all those dismissed in the mass firing from federal service for life, a decision that, needless to say, outraged the union workers but also unsettled the previously strong foothold labor unions had established in America’s labor force.
At the time, President Reagan emphasized emphatically, “They are in violation of the law and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.” The monumental mass firing led to numerous flights being cancelled given the sudden dearth of air traffic controllers.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan reflected on this event in 2003, when asked about the legacy of President Ronald Reagan. Greenspan comments, “Perhaps the most important, and then highly controversial, domestic initiative was the firing of the air traffic controllers in August 1981. The president invoked the law that striking government employees forfeit their jobs, an action that unsettled those who cynically believed no president would ever uphold that law. President Reagan prevailed, as you know, but far more importantly his action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.”
This important event is consistent with the political ideology which would later be dubbed “Reaganism,” a conservative, anti-union policy that preaches supposedly self-reliant practices. The ideology now informs much of the conservative Republican ideology.
Ken Margolies, Senior Associate at Cornell University’s Worker Institute points to a number of factors in the decline in American labor, including Reaganism. Margolies elaborates on this idea in a recent MintPress statement, saying, “The shift in the global economy away from U.S. manufacturing began during the 1970s. After WWII the economy was growing and dominant; but things changed with increased international competition. Companies began to offshore production, closing plants and moving factories outside the U.S. The political atmosphere changed as well. Reagan firing all striking air traffic controllers in 1981 made it more respectable to fight unions. Reaganism also intensified the emphasis on individualism in the U.S which hurt union organizing efforts.”
The presidential race
As many point out, it is important not to read too much into the outcome of the recall election. Democrats were outspent by at least a 5-1 margin, with some saying the margin was closer to 8-1. The $63 million spent on Walker’s behalf shattered previous spending records in the state, with much of the money coming from out-of-state sources. Conversely, the Barrett campaign spent $14 million, with most of the money coming from labor unions and in-state donations.
For Barack Obama, who many within the Democratic party hoped would campaign with Walker, Wisconsin will have particular importance come November. Obama won the state in 2008, and in a winner-take-all electoral college system, picking up 10 votes has added importance in what pollsters project will be a closely contested presidential race.
Republican Presidential nominee Romney lent his vociferous support to Governor Walker, saying, “Governor Walker has demonstrated over the past year what sound fiscal policies can do to turn an economy around, and I believe that in November voters across the country will demonstrate that they want the same in Washington.” Perhaps this is a foreshadowing of GOP hopes to build upon momentum and win the state this November.