If there’s a better-known union buster than Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker, it’s hard to think who that would be. Just months after winning office with 52 percent of the vote, Walker directly attacked organized labor with a bill that stripped public employees of all meaningful collective bargaining rights, provoking an outcry that spread to 50 state capitols.
On June 5, Wisconsin voters decide whether to recall him from office. The choice will be between Walker and Tom Barrett, the Democrat who lost to him in November 2010.
Also up for recall are four Republican state senators who voted for Act 10 (Walker’s anti-collective bargaining bill), and Wisconsin lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Walker’s running mate. Voters will choose between Kleefisch and Mahlon Mitchell, an outspoken state Fire Fighters union leader who rose to prominence in the fight against Act 10. [If Mitchell wins, he’d be Wisconsin’s first black lieutenant governor.]
The June 5 recall election comes 15 months after citizens occupied the state Capitol in Madison and Democratic state senators fled Wisconsin to prevent Act 10’s passage. Protesters redirected their energy to gathering signatures on recall petitions, and in August 2011, six Wisconsin state senate Republicans faced recall elections, with two losing office to Democrats. Wisconsinites then gathered over a million signatures to recall Walker. Only two times before in U.S. history has a state governor been recalled.
THE MAN WHO WOULD REPLACE WALKER: Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, at right, attends a union-sponsored commemoration May 6 of the Bay View Tragedy. The annual event is dedicated to the memory of an 1886 strike in which 14,000 Milwaukee building trades workers demanded an eight-hour day; under orders from a Republican governor, the state militia opened fire, killing seven strikers. Next to Barrett is Mahlon Mitchell, his running mate in the recall campaign against Governor Scott Walker. (Photo by Dominique Paul Noth, Milwaukee Labor Press)
But recalling a governor isn’t a “yes-no” vote; someone must run to replace a recalled candidate. On May 8, Democratic voters chose Barrett — Milwaukee mayor and former congressman — over Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, the candidate who was backed by organized labor. Barrett — who put himself through college and law school working as a member of the Teamsters Union on the Harley-Davidson assembly line — also has a solid pro-labor record as a legislator and executive, including a vote against NAFTA while he was in Congress.
So, voters will have the same choice they had in November 2010. Only now, Walker has a record.
Besides eliminating public employee collective bargaining rights, Walker pushed through major tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals, and slashed state government budgets, including money for schools. He rejected $810 million in federal funds to build a high-speed rail line from Madison to Milwaukee. And he signed a law that requires voters to show government-issued ID before casting a ballot.
Walker is also being circled as a possible target of a broad criminal investigation stemming from his 2010 campaign. The investigation, by a Milwaukee district attorney, has resulted in misdemeanor and felony charges against multiple former Walker appointees. While Walker was Milwaukee County executive, he was surrounded by aides working at taxpayer expense on his campaign for governor. That violated Wisconsin law, and they even set up a secret e-mail system to avoid detection. The investigation has also targeted Walker donors for campaign finance law violations; one railroad executive pled guilty and paid a $167,000 fine. And two top aides were charged with embezzling $60,000 intended for a veterans’ support group.
Since winning the May 8 primary, Barrett hasn’t focused his campaign on collective bargaining rights but rather on Wisconsin’s economy and on the criminal investigation around Walker. TV ads for Barrett say Wisconsin lost 23,900 jobs last year.
Walker ads say the reverse, that the state gained 23,321 jobs. And Walker has more money to spend on ads, having raised over $25 million, much from out-of-state millionaires. As a result, Wisconsinites are being subjected to non-stop television and radio ads, mailers, robocalls from the Walker campaign.
Polls of “likely voters” show the two as neck and neck.
But for unionists, it’s a defining fight, made all the clearer with the May 10 release by a documentary film-maker of video footage from January 2011. In the video, Walker comes up to give a kiss to billionaire Diane Hendricks, a major donor and owner of ABC Supply Company.
“Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state, and work on these unions?” Hendricks asks Walker. “Oh yeah,” Walker nods.
“And become right to work?” Hendricks asks.
Walker’s reply: “We’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employees, ‘cuz you use divide and conquer.”
Walker doesn’t spell out who is to be divided and conquered, but his bill is a masterpiece of the strategy, attempting to pit public against public employee, nonunion against union, private sector union against public sector union, and even — by exempting police and fire unions from the attack — public sector union against public sector union. But Walker may not have anticipated the counter-reaction — a high degree of solidarity by unions and an outpouring of support by nonunion working people nationwide.
Now, backed by money, Walker is fighting to stay in power with an overwhelming “air war” of broadcast advertising.
Organized labor is hoping to overcome that with a “ground war” of volunteers. In Wisconsin, the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations are focusing on door-to-door and face-to-face contacts with a field operation that’s bigger than the Obama campaign was in 2008. “We Are Wisconsin,” the labor-backed coalition, has set up 29 field offices statewide. Nationally, the AFL-CIO’s new Super PAC, Workers Voice, is coordinating fundraising and volunteer signup at its web site, workersvoice.org. Supporters can sign up here to make phone calls, contribute, and get campaign updates.
Labor organizations nationwide are also helping out.
Four staff members of Tigard-based United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, an affiliate of the Change to Win labor coalition, were dispatched to Wisconsin to assist in the get out the vote campaign.
And the Oregon AFL-CIO has organized eight shifts of phone banking, including, in the final week, 3 to 6:30 p.m. June 3, 4, and 5. To sign up, call 232-1195, extension 114.
RECLAIMING WISCONSIN: At the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO office in Milwaukee, a phone bank is part of the effort to recall union-busting governor Scott Walker.