Ron Radosh

On Wisconsin! The Meaning of the Recall Effort

The Wisconsin recall election takes place Tuesday, and as of Monday, most polls have Scott Walker way ahead. There are a lot of points to be made about the possible outcome of a Walker victory.

— Madison does not represent the entire state. A liberal bastion and a university town, it got a lot of press play and coverage during last year’s occupation by Occupy Wall Street types and students at the UW Madison campus. They made a lot of noise, stayed up all night singing and chanting and playing bongos, and made for great television. Then the Democratic members of the state legislature vacated their seats for a hotel in Illinois and refused to return home, in an effort to stop Scott Walker’s reforms from passing and being implemented.

— The reforms passed and, lo and behold, proved to be the kind of conservative reform that was effective and popular. Their implementation revealed the Democratic and trade union opposition to be not the “progressives” they claimed to be, but reactionaries who were standing in the way of necessary change. Writing in the May 28 issue of National Review, Christian Schneider sums up their impact:

Prior to Walker’s reforms, state and local-government employees paid nothing or very little toward their pensions and paid only slightly more than 6 percent of their health-care premiums. According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, the average Wisconsin government employee earned $71,000 in total compensation in 2011. That same year, average total compensation for employees of the state’s largest school district, Milwaukee Public Schools, reached $101,091. Walker helped close the state’s $3.6 billion deficit by requiring public employees to pay 5 percent of their salaries toward their pensions. He also required state employees to pay 12.6 percent of their health-insurance premiums — less than half the average both in the private sector and for federal-government employees.

— The unions were not the monolithic and powerful force some thought they were. Indeed, many private sector union members highly resented their tax dollars going to public sector workers whose inflated benefits were bankrupting the state. Moreover, once the reforms were implemented and workers were no longer required to have their union dues automatically taken out of their salary without having a say, many opted to drop out of union membership and to not voluntarily pay union dues.

With union membership optional and collective bargaining now to be engaged in only for wages, the power of public sector unions has been tremendously hurt. As my friend Fred Siegel has often noted, state governments have collected union members’ dues for the unions, and the unions have then used the money gathered to beef up their campaign chests. Then they back union-friendly candidates and have them work for higher pay and better benefits for the unions that fund their campaigns. It is a very effective shell game, and it is no wonder that the public sector unions are so opposed to the Walker reforms.

The truth is that union ranks are collapsing as former members are now choosing to opt out. The AFT chapter in Wisconsin lost 6000 members, and AFSCME, the key union of state workers, saw its membership rolls drop from a high of 62,818 to 28,745. If those workers really saw a benefit in union membership and they believed in its principles, they would have stayed members even if dues collection was now voluntary. But these former union members chose to desert the ranks, preferring to keep the extra thousand dollars or so they would have given to the union and to put it in their own pockets.

Finally, it is more than possible that many union members will themselves be voting for Scott Walker and not the Democratic Party candidate, Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee. Indeed, Barrett has not even made collective bargaining an issue in the campaign, preferring instead to concentrate on corruption charges brought against former Walker aides, hoping that the case against them will rub off on the governor. Walker, polls show, will receive 38 to 39 percent of the vote of union households. John Fund points out today that labor is split into two camps:

Members of public-sector unions represent 55 percent of all union workers in Wisconsin. Their leaders are focused not on economic growth but on securing bigger pay, more benefits, and greater power regardless of the impact on the overall state budget. Public-sector-union households support Barrett over Walker by 66 percent to 31 percent in a recent Marquette University poll. But among the 45 percent of union households that have a member in the private sector, Barrett leads by much less: 49 percent to 45 percent.

— While Barack Obama undoubtedly hopes Barrett will win, he has himself kept his hands off Wisconsin, and even while he visited nearby states he pointedly did not go to Wisconsin to stand by Barrett’s side. The Democrats did send Bill Clinton for one day, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz made a brief appearance. But it is no secret that the DNC is staying far removed from the fight, hoping that a possible Democratic defeat and Walker victory will not affect the president’s re-election effort.

Obama did at one point call Walker’s reforms an “assault” on the  unions, but even though he pledged in the 2008 campaign to stand by the unions and to picket alongside them, he never came to Madison or publicly endorsed the anti-Walker campaign. Moreover, most federal employees do not themselves have collective bargaining rights, and as federal workers well know, the president imposed a pay freeze on their salaries without the work force having any ability to make their own wills known or to engage in bargaining with the federal government by those unions that represent them.

The last thing Barack Obama wants is for a Walker victory to spell trouble for his own campaign. No wonder union leaders in Wisconsin are furious that the president has not responded to their own efforts to have him come to Wisconsin to rally the troops. His advisers and spokesmen are already getting set to argue that a Walker victory has nothing to do with Obama’s chances for re-election, a claim that would be even more ridiculous than it already is had the president actually gone to Wisconsin to join the fight against the governor.

Everyone realizes that the campaign to recall Walker does have national implications. If Walker wins his fight, it bodes ill for the Democrats — Wisconsin for the first time in many years will be in play come November and not necessarily a sure state for the Democrats. That is why on Tuesday night all eyes will be on the Wisconsin results.