Wisconsin Recall Vote Exposes Vulnerability of Public-Sector Unions

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Scott Walker photoTo his sworn enemies, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker's victory last Tuesday over Democratic challenger Tom Barrett by 53 to 46 percent has been hard to spin and to accept. The biggest loser, aside from Barrett himself, is the state's public-sector labor unions. There's not much getting around it. It was public-sector unions who led the effort to recall Walker following passage by the legislature over a year ago of a fiscal reform package that included several tough limitations on collective bargaining power. Unions and allied groups by this January gathered nearly a million signatures to put a recall on the ballot. All told, some 50,000 volunteers knocked on doors and made phone calls in hopes of unseating Walker. It was to no avail. Yet an arguably bigger story had been well underway: State and local government employees in Wisconsin are exercising their newfound freedom to opt out of union membership. Other states are taking notice. 

The recall vote likely - one only can hope - is the last installment of a saga that began on Election Day, November 2, 2010. Scott Walker, at the time Milwaukee County Supervisor, defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the Wisconsin governor's race by a 52 to 47 percent margin; two-term Democratic Governor Jim Doyle had declined to run for re-election. When Walker took office at the start of 2011, he faced a two-year budget deficit estimated at $3.6 billion. Contributing to the shortfall were health insurance, pension and other commitments to state and local government employees brought about by decades of aggressive union collective bargaining. Wisconsin affiliates of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the two main teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), had negotiated salary and benefit packages that observers increasingly were coming to see as unsustainable.

Backed by Governor Walker, the Wisconsin General Assembly and Senate, each now with a Republican majority, introduced an omnibus fiscal reform package known as the Budget Repair Bill, or "Act 10." Part of this legislation contained curbs on public employee compensation. Specifically, the bill would require state and local workers to: 1) contribute 5.8 percent of wages or salary to retirement plans, up from virtually zero percent; 2) pay for 12.6 percent of health care coverage, up from about 6 percent; 3) accept pay hikes tied to Consumer Price Index; 4) forgo collective bargaining over benefits and working conditions, though not over base pay; and 5) enter into one-year contracts only. Act 10 also would bar public-sector unions from deducting dues payments from employee paychecks against their will and would require unions to undergo annual recertification. Considering that benefit contributions are a good deal higher in equivalent private-sector jobs, this proposal seemed reasonable. What's more, the measure wouldn't apply to police, firefighters and state troopers. It guarded against layoffs. And it wouldn't apply to collective bargaining agreements currently in force.

Public-sector union leaders were outraged all the same, viewing the measure as proof that the spirit of Nazism was well and alive. Recognizing that for the time being they were outflanked by the executive and legislative branches of government, direct action would be the preferred route. During the week of February 14-18, large crowds ranging anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000, egged on by labor officials and their political allies, ringed the exterior grounds of the State Capitol in Madison to protest the Walker plan. Hundreds, if not a couple thousand more, jammed the building interior, making entry and exit for purposes of official business an adventure. This "demonstration" was looking like a riot. The confrontation came to head on Thursday, February 17. Democratic state senators, as an act of solidarity with the protestors, drove off en masse to Rockford, Illinois and points beyond (and undisclosed), in hopes of depriving their 19 Republican colleagues of the minimum 20-member quorum needed to hold a vote. An estimated two-fifths of Madison public school teachers called in sick, prompting school officials to cancel classes. Demonstrators inside the building, realizing they had free reign, began a sit-in occupation lasting roughly three weeks. Republican lawmakers and Governor Walker received death threats. Meanwhile, rallies outside the Capitol during the weekend of February 19-20 drew an estimated 70,000 persons.

Government in Wisconsin was effectively paralyzed. Democratic senators were in hiding; demonstrators were living rent-free inside the Capitol; and marchers outside were baying for Republican blood. Finally, on March 9, the all-Republican Senate decided to break the standoff. GOP leaders introduced the public employee reform plan as a freestanding bill - i.e., minus the budgetary features - as a way of getting around quorum requirement. The Senate passed the measure by an 18-1 margin. The next day the GOP-majority Assembly approved the bill by 53-42. Lawmakers then reattached the labor reforms to the larger Act 10, which the full Assembly and the Senate - AWOL Democrats by then had returned home - passed in early April by respective margins of 58-36 and 22-11. Governor Walker quickly signed the legislation.

The union-led opposition to Walker and the Republicans already had been looking to the judiciary for help. They had an ally in Ismael Ozanne, Dane County (Madison) District Attorney. Weeks before the final vote, Ozanne had filed suit in State Circuit Court in hopes of obtaining a temporary injunction, on procedural grounds, to prevent the law from taking effect. The suit alleged the legislature's conference committee, by approving and sending the final bill to the Senate floor without sufficient time for debate, had violated the state's Open Meetings Law. Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi agreed. She issued a temporary injunction on March 18, 2011, which is what had prompted Senate Democrats to return to Madison. She made her ruling permanent on May 26.

The State appealed, setting the stage for a ruling by the seven-member Wisconsin Supreme Court. Democrats believed they would hold a 4-3 majority by the time a decision would be rendered. That was because one of the Justices, David Prosser, a Republican, was up for re-election on April 5 - Wisconsin Supreme Court members serve ten-year terms - and his Democratic opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg, was an avowed liberal. Prosser, himself a former member of the Wisconsin legislature, now found himself a proxy for Governor Walker. The campaign was bitter and the balloting was close. Prosser won by over 7,000 votes. A recount conducted at Kloppenburg's behest lowered that margin, but only by a few hundred votes. With GOP Justices hanging on to their 4-3 majority, Walker's enemies were at a disadvantage they couldn't overcome. The Court handed down a party-line decision on June 14, holding that Senate Republicans had not violated the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.

The Democrats and their union allies now would go the legislative route to overturn the law. That summer they conducted a recall campaign against nine senators, six Republicans and three Democrats, who voted for Gov. Walker's budget plan. With Republicans holding a 19-14 advantage in the Senate, even a partly successful recall could tip the scales in the Democrats' favor. Looking at it another way, if the Republicans held on to all their seats and picked up just one Democrat-held seat, they could create a quorum-proof supermajority. The Democrats wound up the near-winner. All three Democratic incumbents held on to their seats. And two of the six Republican incumbents lost. Still, if only by a 17-16 margin, the GOP held on to its majority.

Organized labor's best hope of counterattack now lay in recalling Governor Walker. Anti-Walker activists went on the offensive, circulating petitions across the state in hopes of collecting the minimum 540,208 valid signatures of "eligible electors" to force another election. Democratic Party leaders proclaimed by the January 17, 2012 deadline that they had collected more than one million. That was on the high side, but not by much. The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board late in March certified more than 900,000 signatures that called for Walker's removal. The election, scheduled for June 5, was on. Walker's opponent, once again, was Tom Barrett. The Republican Lieutenant Governor, former TV news anchorwoman Rebecca Kleefisch, also was up for a recall vote after anti-Walker activists collected more than 800,000 signatures. Her opponent would be a union man, Democrat Mahlon Mitchell, head of the Wisconsin affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

It wasn't as if anti-Walker activists had given up on turning the legislative branch to their advantage. They succeeded in putting a recall of four Republican senators on the June 5 ballot. One of them, freshman Pam Galloway, abruptly resigned in March, citing family reasons. She had been facing a competitive challenge from Democratic Assemblywoman Donna Seidel. This left the Senate in a 16-16 party tie.

Donations poured in. Some $47 million went into Scott Walker's coffers, about two-thirds of it from out of state. An estimated $18 million, much of it involuntarily provided by dues-paying union members, funded the Barrett campaign. Ironically, public-sector collective bargaining authority wasn't a leading issue in the minds of voters likely to vote for Barrett. "Collective bargaining is not moving people," Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski admitted. In a poll of Wisconsin Democrats, just 12 percent of respondents cited "restoring collective bargaining rights of public employees" as the most important reason to remove Walker, well behind three other reasons. Even President Obama, a strong partisan of organized labor, refrained from putting in a visit, limiting his involvement to issuing a two-sentence tweet message on behalf of Barrett.

The June 5 final tally read: Walker 53 percent, Barrett 46 percent. This was a slightly wider margin than the result of November 2010. Lieutenant Governor Kleefisch similarly defeated Mitchell by 53-47 percent. The Democratic Party, and its principle source of political muscle, the public-sector unions, once more had been denied. Walker's victory, says University of Chicago political scientist Charles Lipson, is "a big deal" because "it squashes the Democrats in the most important by-election of the year." Steve Rosenthal, a top Democratic Party organizer and the AFL-CIO's former political director, admitted the outcome was a "big loss" for unions. A few Democratic partisans tried to put a positive spin on the results. AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said the campaign "showed our ability to put boots on the ground." And former Democratic National Committee Chairman and Vermont Governor Howard Dean stated at the recent Netroots Nation conference, "We look at Wisconsin as a win," noting that Democrats in the four Senate recall elections picked up a net one seat, giving them a 17-16 edge.

Actually, the case for Walker's win as overrated isn't entirely implausible. He won by seven percentage points - convincing, but hardly a landslide. The fact that nearly half of all Wisconsin voters wanted to throw out a governor on grounds unrelated to public misconduct should serve notice that Walker still has lots of enemies in his midst, great and small. And if the Democrats were truly unpopular, they would not be holding anywhere near a majority in the Wisconsin Senate. But there are other realities to consider. And taken together, they strongly suggest the recall campaign was a serious setback for organized labor, in the long and the short term.

First, an election recall campaign, by its very nature, is a product of a high degree of confidence among its sponsors. An effort to remove a sitting governor in particular is a rare event in U.S. history. Until now, it had happened only twice - North Dakota in 1921 and California in 2003. In each case, the effort was successful. The Democrats and their union allies in Wisconsin anticipated reaping a groundswell of public revulsion toward Republicans, supposedly the enemies of working people. They miscalculated. The result of the second Walker-Barrett race turned out to be a virtual carbon copy of the first. Even a 51-49 percent victory for Walker would have been a rebuke to his enemies. Unions, in other words, were the favorites. And the favorites lost. 

Second, Wisconsin has been progressive Democratic territory for some time. No Republican presidential candidate has won that state in a general election since Ronald Reagan did it in 1984. Barack Obama defeated Sen. John McCain here in 2008 by 56 percent to 42 percent. It was Wisconsin, if one remembers, that decisively turned the tide in favor of Obama during the Democratic primary campaign; up until that point, Hillary Clinton, slightly more moderate, was considered the front-runner. Yet Wisconsin voters elected Scott Walker as governor in 2010 and now have retained him, despite extraordinary levels of invective directed at him. This suggests a sustainable rightward shift rather than a fluke.  

Third, the slight edge that the Democrats now enjoy in the Wisconsin Senate is misleading. By the time of the June 5 elections, the legislature already had declared itself out of session for the rest of the year. Moreover, Republicans are expected to gain a net of two Senate seats this November, thanks to redistricting favorable to the party's fortunes. The race that put the Democrats over the top - the razor-thin victory of John Lehman over Van Wanggaard - was in a district (Racine) whose boundary lines are scheduled for a redrawing.

Fourth, living in a union household was no guarantee of a vote against Walker. Indeed, according to a Washington Post exit poll, nearly a third of all union members who cast a vote in last Tuesday's election did so in favor of Walker. That figure rose to 48 percent among voters who live with a union member but aren't members themselves. Surely if union rank and file were politically in step with their leaders, these figures would be a lot closer to zero percent. Union members and their families are solidly, but not overwhelmingly Democratic.

Fifth, and related to the previous point, union members in Wisconsin, freed from compulsion to belong, are voting with their feet - toward the exit door. According to internal union documents viewed by the Wall Street Journal, AFSCME membership in the state during March 2011-February 2012 - i.e., the twelve month-period starting with the month of the initial vote making membership in a public-sector union optional - fell from 62,818 to 28,745, a drop of 54 percent. Only a small portion of that shift was due to layoffs. And while AFSCME membership nationwide also declined, it did so only from 1.37 million to 1.32 million, or by 4.2 percent. Thus, a change in law has had plenty do with the drop in Wisconsin. AFSCME isn't the only union in Wisconsin where members are choosing to say goodbye. About 6,000 of the 17,000 members of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate also have left. In Indiana, Republican Governor Mitch Daniels issued an executive order authorizing a union opt-out for public-sector employees seven years ago; public-sector unions in that state subsequently have lost about 90 percent of their dues-paying members. More than any recall election, the Right to Work principle, as applied to the public sector, has the capacity to set fiscal houses in order.

Sixth and finally, Wisconsin isn't the only place where public-sector unions ran smack up against the new reality last Tuesday. Voters in San Jose and San Diego, California each approved ballot initiatives by wide margins that would require or encourage shifting municipal worker retirement plans from a defined-benefit (i.e., traditional pension) to a defined-contribution system, such as a 401(k) plan. The intent was to take taxpayers off the hook in the event of default, given the recent explosive growth in pension liabilities. In San Jose, where nearly 70 percent of the vote was in favor, Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, explains the result this way: "Liberals and conservatives all understand the same thing: We have had to cut services to pay for pensions." And in San Diego, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, two-thirds of the vote was in favor. "Anytime you get 66 percent, it means people were pretty fed up with something," noted Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders. The trend likely will catch fire nationwide, as more voters make the connection between outsized public employee benefits and rollbacks in basic services.

So where do the unions go from here? Many of their leaders vow to reverse course, believing the results of the June 5 elections were an anomaly. But they may be prisoners of their illusions. Combined savings to state and local governments in Wisconsin since passage of the Budget Repair Act was recently projected at more than $600 million. The Kaukauna school district, for example, has gone from a $400,000 deficit to a $1.5 million surplus, yet has managed to reduce class sizes and reward its best teachers with merit pay. A study released this May by a Suffolk University (Boston) think tank, the Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research, concluded that the law thus far has saved local governments anywhere from $775 million to $1.2 billion. Ironically, public-sector as well as private-sector workers have benefited. Because the law eschewed tax hikes as a way to close the budget gap, the economy in Wisconsin has performed well relative to the rest of the country. Researchers estimate the law has prevented the loss of between 11,500 and 14,000 jobs in the private sector, and as many as 6,500 jobs in the public sector. Results do matter. When people as a whole believe a change of course has worked out for the better, they're not likely to return to the old ways.

Looking at the long-term, the unions are losing support even among the more liberal-minded public. By locking state and local governments into potentially disastrous benefit commitments, they are raising the likelihood of service cutbacks, including closure of facilities. Democratic Party officials at the state and local levels mostly understand this; those at the national level mostly don't. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, in his post-election analysis, explained why the political fallout for the latter could be severe:

...Members of the progressive coalition value public services highly - parks, libraries, public safety, education, support for the homeless and such. They are joined by civic-minded independents and non-libertarian conservatives. These voters have seen the commitments made to public-sector unions devouring state and local budgets, leaving little room for any initiatives in the public good...

By siding with public employees in the state and local budget disputes, the national Democratic Party is playing with dynamite. Voters are sometimes willing to accept new taxes to purchase shared public benefits such as roads or schools. But even in liberal California cities, voters are reluctant to raise tax revenue to transfer directly to the retirement benefits of a middle-class interest group. So public-sector unions seek to channel resources away from education, parks and libraries into pensions - making public unions a major obstacle to the adequate provision of public services. This is a losing proposition in Wisconsin, California or just about anywhere else in the country.

Public-sector union leaders aren't going to apologize for their actions in Wisconsin or other states. In a way, it's understandable. When people, whether as individuals or members of a group, find themselves cornered, they have a tendency to get aggressive. But unions and their political enablers are fighting a losing battle. They are increasingly becoming transparent as an obstacle to the public interest, not an embodiment of it. Fiscal reformers, regardless of party, have an opportunity to stop the massive transfer of wealth to unionized public-sector employees. At least one such reformer, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, has demonstrated the courage to become highly unpopular among a large segment of the state electorate in order to restore fiscal health and build a broad populist coalition for fiscal responsibility. He's paid a price, but his enemies may wind up paying a higher one.

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