Three years ago, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker first dropped what he called a “bomb,” one that suddenly and swiftly decimated the union rights of public employees. Walker’s legislation, Act 10, ignited outrage from unions and their allies, fueling a massive effort to recall the governor, which came to fruition with a recall vote in June 2012.
Walker prevailed in the recall, but the process left behind a resentful segment of the public. Today, the fight against Walker and his anti-worker policies is picking up steam with an electoral challenge from Democratic businesswoman Mary Burke, and a labor campaign to support Burke and highlight Wisconsin workers’ lagging wages.
Surprisingly, the relatively unknown Burke — who opposes Walker on nearly every issue — matched the incumbent governor 45 percent to 45 percent among likely voters in a recent survey by the right-leaning Rasmussen polling group announced March 12. A March 26 Marquette University poll was not quite as encouraging, showing a 48 percent to 41 percent lead for Walker over Burke, though it underscored that Burke has made inroads even before becoming well-known around the state (and releasing her economic program countering Walker’s). And given Walker’s gubernatorial record, there will be plenty for Burke to criticize him on in the impending campaign season.
Where Walker is vulnerable
Walker’s less-than-overwhelming polling results may signify new vulnerabilities for the governor heading into the gubernatorial race. Walker’s rumored interest in a run for the Republican presidential nomination may suggest to voters that he is losing interest in Wisconsin’s pressing economic problems. (Last month, for example, Walker traveled to Las Vegas with other suspected GOP presidential hopefuls to woo billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson who was staging what some have called his “one-man primary.”)
And from Walker’s apparent focus on making a move to the national stage, his campaign is vulnerable on the state’s stagnant wages, unmet promises of job creation, a highly controversial mining project, and attacks on women’s reproductive rights that exemplify the Republican “war on women.”
But it is Walker’s evisceration of public-employee unions that has stirred some of the strongest emotions. Walker consciously pushed Act 10, as he confided to a billionaire backer, as a “divide and conquer” maneuver to split working class voters by focusing resentment against (supposedly privileged) public-sector workers. Despite its damaging repercussions, Act 10 instead unified both public and private sector workers, with polls showing support for public-sector union rights at over 60%. The legislation triggered a volcanic reaction that included six weeks of rallies in frigid weather that drew up to 150,000 people outside the Capitol in Madison, attracting international attention. The bill’s passage spurred a recall drive against Walker that gathered nearly one million signatures, an extraordinary amount in a state of 5.7 million people. However, lavish funding from Walker’s billionaire donors like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson provided him with as much as $60 million, allowing him to dominate the airwaves and defeat his challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, by a 53 percent to 46 percent margin.
This time around, however, Walker’s record leaves him vulnerable to challenge on a host of working-people’s issues. While workers across the nation have seen median household income tumble from $55,438 in 2007 to $51,404 in 2013, Wisconsin’s workforce has felt the pain even more acutely, with private-sector state wages at 15 percent below the US average. Worse, a recent report shows Wisconsin ranking just 35th in annual wage increases nationally since 2009. And, as in other states, the vast majority of new jobs that are being created in Wisconsin are low-wage service sector jobs for which even older and well-educated workers find themselves competing.
And Walker has hardly begun to meet his promise of promoting the creation of 250,000 jobs — the centerpiece of his campaign in 2010. In fact, Wisconsin ranks 35th in the rate of new job growth from September 2012 to September 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wisconsin lost more of its manufacturing base in the last year, while gaining jobs in the primarily low-paying food-service sector.
Worse still, one of the Wisconsin Republicans’ primary “job creation” strategies is to deregulate mining with the hope of opening the doors for a major new iron-ore mine sought by Gogebic Taconite near the Bad River watershed and Lake Superior at Wisconsin’s northern tip. As with most extractive projects, only a limited number of short-term jobs would be created. But Walker and his allies are willing to risk grievous long-term damage to the ground (asbestos and sulfide have been found on the site already), the watershed and the air, all while steamrolling opposition from local elected officials and a coalition of Chippewa Indian peoples. (The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity has just begun intervening in support of the mining project in local elections, branding the Mercer Chamber of Commerce president as an “anti-mining radical” for questioning the mining project.)
Walker’s proposals on taxes and other budgetary issues serve to harden the perception that he is deeply committed to enrich corporations with tax breaks while giving only token tax relief to those outside the top 1%. Tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy are substantial, while part of the reduction in workers’ taxes simply comes from deducting less per paycheck, meaning a smaller tax-return check at the end of the year.
In the state’s current budget proposal, Walker’s legislative priorities not only included the economic priorities of the top 1%, but a social agenda targeting women’s reproductive rights. Ignoring statements by the Wisconsin Medical Society, the Wisconsin Hospital Association and other major medical groups in Wisconsin, Walker signed into law a mandatory ultra-sound measure that is one of the nation’s most intrusive anti-abortion laws. The Progressive reported:
Opponents said the requirement for visualizing the fetal heartbeat was tantamount to requiring women in their first trimester of pregnancy to submit themselves to an invasive trans-vaginal procedure since a fetal heartbeat is not necessarily detectable that early by means of an abdominal ultrasound.
While these draconian abortion laws are being held up by a ruling issued last December by a federal appeals court, the new Republican measures are precisely the kind of policies which stirred a strong backlash of women in Virginia against state Republicans who hoped to pass similar legislation but were defeated by fierce resistance from pro-choice Virginians. Planned Parenthood — which endured cuts of $1 million per year in state aid under Walker’s current budget — projects that a new anti-abortion provision requiring abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles will mean the closing of at least one of the ever-shrinking number of clinics.
Burke has taken some important steps to position herself as an opponent of Walker’s most unpopular policies. Burke firmly opposes Walker on Act 10 and has declared that the governor has actually pursued an agenda that has diverted from real job creation. “I’ve seen eighth-grade term papers that frankly have more work put into them,” said Burke, in reference to Walker’s job plan from 2010.With wages in Wisconsin generally low and new jobs offering sub-par pay and benefits — Burke was an early and strong supporter of a new national minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, which helped win her the endorsement of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, pointed out Bruce Colburn, vice president of the Healthcare Wisconsin unit of the Service Employees International Union.
However, as was evident in her recent interview on “All In With Chris Hayes” on MSNBC, Burke has room to grow in swaying voters with her charisma. She was prone to bland, abstract statements seemingly geared more to reassuring corporate leaders rather than exciting working people. Typical of her approach: “I have a 30-year track record as an executive in the private sector. I put problem solving ahead of the politics.”
Though Burke is clearly intelligent, it’s not exactly the stuff to motivate voters.
In the meantime, labor is promoting a large-scale independent campaign to raise wages, said the SEIU’s Colburn. The labor campaign will include support for more proposals like Milwaukee County’s just-passed living wage ordinance, which stipulates that all county employees and county contractors are paid a minimum of $11.32 an hour. Unions are targeting Milwaukee, Madison, and the Fox Valley for minimum-wage ballot measures, said Colburn, with the hope of expanding the issue campaign to other city councils and county boards. Referendum measures have proven to be a very effective means of both winning tangible improvements in low-wage workers’ lives and in stimulating a much higher Democratic turnout in states like Missouri during the 2006 election, with the higher wage proposals winning and the larger turnout providing a crucial margin to Democratic candidates. As MSNBC host Rachel Maddow has noted, “When Democrats push for economically populist ideas, when they push for things that economically benefit working people, it is the closest thing there is to electoral magic for the Democratic Party.”
Perhaps mindful of this, Republican legislators have been working on a bill to block local city and county governments from enacting minimum wages higher than the current $7.25 level, but it appears unlikely to pass before this legislative session expires.
The SEIU’s Colburn believes that Burke’s ability to put forth a credible campaign to lift wages, complemented by labor’s independent effort, will determine the outcome of the election. “Whoever wins the economic issue in Wisconsin, wins the election,” he said.
What Walker has going for him
Despite Burke’s selling points, labor’s parallel campaign on wages, and Walker’s evident weaknesses, the 2014 campaign will be fraught with challenges.
To counter Burke’s message, Walker allies have already begun attacking his challenger with a series of smear TV ads. The ads have claimed (falsely) that the state’s Commerce Department was scandal-plagued while she served as commerce secretary under Democratic Gov. James Doyle. This attack, which tries to inflate customary bureaucratic problems into a scandal, appears designed to deflect attention from the fact that six Walker aides and associates have been convicted on a variety of charges — including stealing money from a veteran’s organization — and that his campaigns have been the target of two “John Doe” investigations, the second of which is ongoing. The ethical clouds surrounding Walker are a major potential liability, but his extensive national fundraising network will have plenty of funds to carpet-bomb Wisconsin with TV ads. One pro-Walker ad even attacks Burke from the left, charging that while she served as CEO of Trek Bicycle, the firm off-shored jobs to China.
“The reality is that all low-end bicycles made with U.S. labels are now made in China, while Trek has kept all high-end bike production in Wisconsin,” countered Michael Rosen, a left-wing economist who has been a harsh critic of corporate globalization, and the president of the Federation of Teachers Local 212 at Milwaukee Technical College. (And for Walker’s part, he has declined to challenge the Manitowoc Company as they move jobs from Wisconsin to Mexico and potentially China.)
The passage of Act 10 did more than turn Wisconsin into a right-to-work state; it weakened unions’ organizational networks and their ability to have an impact on their members, families, friends and most importantly in Burke’s case, elections. For Rosen, “the legislation was significant because it reduced labor’s membership and our ability to reach our people and put boots on the ground for political campaigns.” The statewide teachers union the Wisconsin Educational Association Council has already lost about half of its 98,000 members since Act 10 was passed. The Wisconsin State Employees Union’s membership has plummeted from 22,000 state workers to roughly 9,000−10,000 members. The WSEU and three other AFSCME councils have seen their combined revenues fall by 45 percent in 2012, with dues sliding by 40 percent.
Despite the strong victories of President Barack Obama and strong progressive Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin, the shrinkage of the union vote will force labor to reach beyond its ranks. Though Democrats had a good showing in the 2012 elections, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “union households represented the smallest share of the Wisconsin vote in at least 20 years.”
For Rosen, that means labor will be compelled to develop an inclusive message and cultivate new allies in order to have an electoral impact. “Labor will have to reach out much further to new constituencies in this election,” Rosen stressed. Particularly crucial will be effective outreach to African-American women, Rosen argues, who have been the most important group to drop out of electoral participation in mid-term elections after voting in presidential elections. The emphasis by labor and its allies on raising low wages and women’s reproductive rights dovetails with the effort to reach black women.
While Walker’s failure to measure up to his 250,000 jobs pledge may be viewed by the major media as his biggest failing — unless the second John Doe probe produces explosive revelations before the election — the most critical issues in the upcoming elections will likely be Walker’s neglect of Wisconsin’s low wages and his attacks on women’s reproductive rights.
For labor, the threat to workers’ living standards will be central in their 2014 efforts and beyond.
“The wage issue is crucial, and it will be a long-term fight,” Colburn says.