Labor unions have a lot riding on the outcome of the Scott Walker recall election. They have poured millions of dollars and sent hundreds of volunteers to Wisconsin to assist Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, the Democratic candidate, in his efforts. Local unions have rallied to Barrett’s standard and have initiated a massive get-out-the-vote drive to bring their supporters to the polls on election day.
But all the money and all that effort has gone to waste. Labor unions have already lost the recall election regardless of how the vote turns out. Here are five reasons why:
1. Voters have moved on from the controversy over collective bargaining reform, which was the cause of the recall effort .
When Act 10, the bill to reform the collective bargaining process in Wisconsin, was being considered, labor unions tried their utmost to see it defeated. Tens of thousands of teachers, public employees, and other union members poured into Madison to physically try to intimidate lawmakers into voting against the measure. Democratic state senators took flight and left the state in order to deny the GOP majority a quorum to pass the bill. The anger was real, and union leaders were heartened to think that this kind of enthusiasm could translate into votes. So despite their failure to stop the measure from passing (a mammoth defeat that was followed up by another huge loss when most of the law was upheld in the state Supreme Court), they believed they had the momentum to overturn the 2010 election and recall several of the Republican senators who voted for the measure. Once in the majority, the senators would repeal the law and all would be made right.
Their efforts fell short — another defeat — when four of the six GOP senators won their recall elections, denying Democrats a majority by one seat. Then, late last year, a petition drive got underway to get the state board of elections to schedule a recall of Governor Walker. They managed this with relative ease, and the recall vote was scheduled for June 5.
But something funny happened on the way to the governor’s mansion for unions and their Democratic allies: the Wisconsin voter moved on from the controversy over Act 10. The white-hot anger expressed by public employee unions that inspired much of the public to support their cause has retreated, and voters now see jobs and the Wisconsin economy as far more important factors in the race than collective bargaining reform.
In a recent Marquette Law School poll, 46 percent of the registered voters polled listed job creation as the most important issue in the recall election. On the other hand, 12 percent of Democrats likely to vote said restoring collective bargaining was the most important issue.
Even if Barrett wins, his victory will not be due to the controversy over the collective bargaining issue, but to the fact that Wisconsin’s job creation has been sub-par over the last year. The unions will no doubt try to spin any such victory as a response to Walker’s efforts to “take away” their collective bargaining rights. But the fact is, the public has tired of the controversy and moved on to more pressing matters.
2. The public supports Walker’s efforts to reform public employee collective bargaining.
This from the Marquette poll:
Collective bargaining continues to divide the electorate by single digits. Voters prefer to keep the current collective bargaining law rather than return to what it was prior to last year, by a 50-43 percentage point margin. Restoring collective bargaining is supported by 78 percent of Democrats and opposed by 81 percent of Republicans. Among independents, 53 percent want to keep the current law while 38 percent want to return to the previous law. In the April poll, 49 percent said they favored limiting collective bargaining for most public employees, while 45 percent opposed such limits. In the January poll, using different wording, the public was more evenly split, with 48 percent favoring limiting public employee bargaining over benefits and non-wage issues, while 47 percent were opposed.
Last week, a study came out showing that Walker’s reforms had already saved Wisconsin taxpayers $1 billion, as local school districts have been able to renegotiate health and pension contracts. Despite a demonization campaign against Governor Walker, a majority of voters do not see collective bargaining reform the same way that unions do.
3. The national Democratic Party’s lukewarm support for the recall.
Considering that labor unions attach seminal importance to the recall vote, the national Democratic Party has been less than enthusiastic in supporting the efforts of their union friends.
Liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent wrote a few weeks ago
“We are frustrated by the lack of support from the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Governors Association,” a top union official tells me. “Scott Walker has the full support and backing of the Republican Party and all its tentacles. We are not getting similar support.”
Finally, less than two weeks ago, the national Democratic Party stirred itself to action and began pouring money into the state. But Scott Walker had an immense head start and has crushed Tom Barrett in fundraising for the race, outspending him by at least 2-1.
While one explanation for the fundraising differential is clearly the fact that there was no Democratic candidate until the primary ended less than a month ago, it is also true that Barrett was slaughtering his rivals in the polls and has been the presumptive candidate for months.
The truth is, unions did not support Barrett in the primary. Instead of backing the sure winner and planning for the recall election, they poured $4 million into the hopeless candidacy of former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk. They paid for this blunder when the national Democrats looked at the polls and saw Walker with the lead and raising $30 million for the race. Even with their belated efforts — and a visit to the state by Bill Clinton — the Democrats have clearly held back, while Walker has been able to attract every major Republican figure in the country to campaign for him.
If Barrett loses, he will have a beef with the DNC and national Democrats who delayed supporting him until it was too late.
4. Where’s Obama?
Bill Clinton’s appearances in the state over the final weekend drew large, enthusiastic crowds and gave a psychological boost to the Barrett campaign.
So why won’t President Obama commit some of his prestige to the recall effort?
Last year, when union anger was at its zenith, the president, as Byron York points out, was “eager to identify with the union cause”:
“Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions,” Obama told a Milwaukee TV reporter in February 2011.
That was then; this is now:
‘This is a gubernatorial race with a guy who was recalled and a challenger trying to get him out of office,” top Obama campaign official Stephanie Cutter said Wednesday on MSNBC. “It has nothing to do with President Obama at the top of the ticket, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with Mitt Romney at the top of the Republican ticket.”
The president would probably not have persuaded too many Wisconsinites to vote for Barrett. But in a race where turnout is vital, his failure to visit the scene of the second most important political event of the year and gin up enthusiasm for Barrett in traditional Democratic strongholds like Milwaukee, Madison, and other industrial towns in the state is a curious failure on his part and a defeat for the unions.
With turnout expected to be above 60%, observers like former Senator Russ Feingold believe that there needs to be a turnout comparable to 2008, when 69% of registered voters went to the polls. But if the turnout is closer to 2010 — 65% — when Walker beat Barret in the gubernatorial race, the contest will probably go Walker’s way.
Could an Obama tour of the state have boosted turnout to the 70% range and given Barrett his margin of victory? We’ll never know, and disappointed union leaders could be left to wonder what might have been if Walker ends up the victor.
5. The pension bomb has already defeated unions
It’s not a question of whether there will be reforms of state and local public employee pensions. It’s a question of when those reforms will happen, and if they occur in time to stave off a disaster for taxpayers.
Scott Walker tried to address one small part of this crisis by asking public employees to contribute more from their paychecks to the state’s pension fund. The way the unions reacted, one would have believed that Walker was trying to take their pensions away. The effort to require public employees to contribute the same amount to their pension fund as most private citizens is going to be duplicated nationwide once pension bombs begin exploding.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, “Nationwide, state pensions were underfunded by $600 billion in 2009. That accounts for about half of the $1.26 trillion gap in overall retirement benefits owed to public employees that year.” The article notes that “states have only set aside $31 billion to cover the health care of its retirees – just five percent of the $635 billion they already owe.”
State governors are watching the recall effort very closely. While the issue of collective bargaining reform will not doom Walker’s chances, the very fact that he was recalled in the first place as a result of Act 10 makes politicians nervous. Can governors take on unions with regard to their pension and health benefits, which are out of control and need to be reined in?
The Wall Street Journal says of Walker’s efforts:
His political offense was daring to challenge the monopoly sway that public unions have come to hold over modern state government through collective bargaining. Public unions aren’t like private unions that negotiate labor terms with a single company or workplace. Public unions have outsize influence because they can often buy the politicians who are supposed to represent taxpayers. The unions effectively sit on both sides of the bargaining table.
Thus over time they have been able to extort excessive wages, benefits and pensions, as well as sweetheart contracts like the monopoly provision of health insurance. Their focused special interest trumps the general interest of taxpayers, who are busy making a living and lack the time to focus on politics other than during elections or amid a fiscal crisis.
Fiscal crisis is just what many smaller governmental entities are in. Even at the brink of bankruptcy, public unions balk at taking the necessary medicine. How will the pension bomb be defused and ever-rising health care costs for retired public workers be successfully managed if the unions don’t cooperate?
Eventually, whether they want to or not, unions will be forced to give in. And this is the final reason why unions have already lost regardless of the outcome in Wisconsin. Their ideas are outmoded and unsuitable for a modern society with problems relating to an aging population and shrinking work force to support them. This final reason for their defeat might do them in entirely unless the unions wake up and work with state and local governments to pull back from the abyss and find reasonable common ground to save what can be saved from this fiscal nightmare.