After Wisconsin: What's Next for Labor?

wisonsin union
Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
Demonstrators stand outside the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin.
By |

The biggest lesson of the failed recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is that organized labor is no longer the political counterweight to corporate power that it once was, and that if the left doesn't find a way to compete with conservative money, it's toast.

It's pretty hard to see Tuesday's outcome as anything other than a significant setback for the unions, which helps explain why labor leaders are emphasizing the one-off nature of Wisconsin. Richard Trumka, the chief of the AFL-CIO, pointed out to me that there have only been two successful recalls in history, and in this case "60 percent of people in the state were against the recall because they think you should only have a recall if there's corruption, and not policy differences." He also noted that control of the state Senate did flip to the Dems, so calling this an out-and-out loss is not entirely accurate. "We knew this was going to be tough," he added.

James P. Hoffa, the head of the Teamsters, was not available for a comment, but in a statement he also played up the difficulty of recalling a sitting governor, "especially one with a huge spending advantage." He spun the loss as a spur to the renewal of the labor movement: “Our Teamster brothers and sisters in Wisconsin and across the nation are more active, energetic and educated because of this historic recall election."

Maybe so. But the fact is, Gov. Walker enjoyed a 7-1 money advantage over his Democratic opponent, money he and his supporters plowed into on unanswerable shock-and-awe TV ad campaign, forcing the Democrat-supporting unions to concentrate on mobilization and get-out-the-vote efforts, which in the end fell short.

So, does labor need to change its political strategy? No, says Trumka. He allowed that the money was a big factor, while also noting that they've always been outspent. "But what you're seeing right now are massive amounts of money coming in from unaccounted sources." Two-thirds of the money on Walker's side came from out of state, something possible only in a post-Citizens United era of unlimited corporate giving. "That has pretty serious repercussions for our democracy," he said. "Let's be clear: Citizens United has ushered in a new era of elections. And I gotta tell you, it's not a pretty picture."

But Trumka was emphatic that, in the end, this defeat not going to change how the unions operate in the political arena. "Are we gonna turn to being money machines? No. We're going to continue to do what we do best, and that's educate and mobilize and get our people out to the polls."

As for whether or not labor is "dead," as more than a few pundits have been saying today, Trumka laughed off the idea, pointing to the recent defeat of Ohio Gov. John Kasich's plan to limit collective bargaining rights. "What did they say then? Did they say that was the end of the Republican party?"

The Republican Governors Association – which spent $619,000 on TV ads, Facebook ads, and robocalls in support of Walker in the days leading up to the election (compared with the $98,000 the main group backing Barrett, Greater Wisconsin, spent on ads) – is not writing off the unions, either. Mike Schrimpf, the Communications Director for the RGA, told me, "I read earlier this year that [the unions are] planning on spending $450 million in the 2012 elections, and their top priority is electing Democratic governors. I think they have not spent anywhere close to what they intend to spend for the rest of the year. So I think they will be continuing to do everything they can to stand in the way of Republican governors."

x