Lessons from the Wisconsin recall election


By Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president

Political cartoons, talk radio, and all the pundits have dedicated countless hours to interpreting the Wisconsin recall outcome. I think it’s simpler than many of them make it out to be: Corporate donors spent between $50 and $85 million directly and indirectly to win an election by 6 points —  or 171,665 votes. Unions and progressive groups mounted an impressive field campaign that contacted voters in the workplace, at the door- step, and on the phone; but Walker backers also mounted an effective field campaign that got their voters to the polls.

The analysis of this election can teach us a few valuable lessons.

  1. Recall elections are difficult at best.  Since 1921 only three governors have faced recall. Sixty percent of Wisconsin voters believed that recalls should be limited to acts of misconduct — they were voting on the election, not the candidate.
  2. 1%ers — from the Koch brothers, building contractors associations, and hedge fund managers, to telecommunication executives and manufacturing giants like Caterpillar — will spend vast amounts to deepen their influence at the local, state, and federal government. The June 5 Wisconsin election results will embolden their thirst for greater conquests.
  3. An effective analysis can’t focus on Wisconsin, without looking at the Ohio November 2011 referendum. Last November, by a vote of 2-to-1, Ohio voted to overturn legislation that took collective bargaining rights away from public workers. Again, 1%ers spent millions, while unions and their allies hit the street. That puts the count at 1-1.  And finally,
  4. While most projections for Wisconsin turnout pointed to 65 percent, the final tally of 58 percent was far short of what was needed to win. Despite turnout machines on either side, it appears that communities of color and low-income voters did not vote. Ultimately, that is what made the difference.

Low voter turnout means the poor, the middle class, women, communities of color, the LGBT community, children, you and I – anyone who does not benefit from corporatist policies — lose.  When we don’t vote, the 1%ers move a step closer to their vision of America. It’s a vision of an America where social programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, and health care, are designed to put more money in their pockets instead of prioritizing assistance for our people. It is an America where workers’ competition for jobs means accepting lower wages, fewer benefits, and no voice at work, as our rights dwindle.

What Wisconsin foreshadows in November is a battle of epic proportion.

Where the 1%ers see an opportunity to increase their power and influence, they will spend whatever it takes to win, pitting their money against those who believe that a capitalist society only works if there are checks and balances. They will stand against those who fight for workers’ rights, who understand that in a recession, government has an obligation to create jobs and rebuild the infrastructure to increase our competitiveness, those who fight for financial accountability, those who advocate for women, education, the environment, and human rights.

To win we must not just limit our campaigns to union households. We know that the most effective message for a union member is still a message from another union member. But to win we must expand our voter education programs to include all voters. This will require us to continue to coordinate with community and progressive groups. To win requires expanding our volunteer ranks. It is not too early to call our office and join our activist list. Please call Jess at 503-232-1195 and join the fight.

This November, we need you standing up for our side.


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