Labor Intent on Breaking Wisconsin GOP Chokehold, as Recall Votes Start Today

Roger Bybee

Labor unions and activists protest Scott Walker's anti-union bill in Madison.

I never expected the Republicans would act fairly, but I am appalled.” —Wisconsin State Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D‑Madison, on Republican redistricting plan that could negate the results of recall elections this summer. 

MILWAUKEE — Under Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s far-Right Republicans have — shamelessly and sometimes bizarrely — shown their zeal for destroying labor rights and narrowing the state’s mission to subsidize the corporate class. That’s why Wisconsin became known to the critics of Walker and GOP legislative leaders Scott and Jeff Fitzgerald as Fitzwalkerstan,” an outlaw state brazenly using extreme and undemocratic methods to ensure the imposition of extreme measures. 

But payback time may be at hand: Summer recall elections may disrupt Republicans’ big Senate majority gained in November 2010. However, the always-inventive Republicans have come up with a solution befitting their dictatorial mentality: Negate democracy by wiping out the districts where three Democratic candidates now reside.

The Republicans are aiming to approve the redistricting plan on July 19, before the results of the nine Senate recall elections are in. Further, Republicans have also inserted phony Democratic candidates into six of the races, scrambling the election schedule and giving the GOP machine more time to put down the voter rebellion. (Republicans are also staging three efforts to unseat three of the Democratic senators who fled the state to prevent a Republican quorum on the union-busting bill.)


The round of recall elections start today, with Republicans running GOP stalwarts as Democrats to force a set of primary elections in six races, with the final elections August 9. In two other races, July 19 Republican primaries will precede the final elections on Aug. 16.

For the Republicans, the recall elections enforce a level of democratic accountability that they would simply prefer to eradicate. Predictably, the Republicans have begun talking about weakening Wisconsin’s recall law, in effect since 1926.

The Republicans claim the recall process diverts legislators and the public from such urgent business as the quick approval of an iron-ore mine in far north-central Wisconsin. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie betrayed the GOP’s remarkable level of contempt for democracy when he declared, 

The upcoming recall elections are an inconvenience and a distraction to most Wisconsin voters. The governor’s goal is to move forward to get Wisconsin working again.

But the recall process is no mere inconvenience, according to University of Wisconsin political scientist Dennis Dresang. The recall process was inserted into state law by the legendary Progressive Party Gov. Fighting Bob” LaFollette as a means of breaking the chokehold that corporate interests held on Wisconsin legislators: 

The roots of the recall process date to post-Civil War politics. Around that time, political machines began to take shape, combining the corporate interests of the privately owned railroad companies, banks, lumber, utility and road companies under the umbrella of the Republican Party.

The recall was all about destroying the political machines. It’s a right voters gave to themselves during the progressive movement.


Organized labor and its allies have refused to be discouraged or intimidated by the GOP’s redistricting efforts and record of undemocratic maneuvers. (To cite just two: Republicans violated the state’s Open Meetings law to ram through the anti-union bill passed this year, and Gov. Walker and other Republicans have been unwilling to consult with Democrats, much less negotiate with them on major legislation, a major break with Wisconsin political traditions.)

Instead, they have kept their eyes on the prize this summer: using the recall process to unseat as many as six Republican senators who voted to strip public workers of their right to any meaningful union representation. 

With a switch of only three seats needed, the Republican grip on the Senate will be broken and the stream of far-Right legislation can finally be dammed up. 

The Wisconsin AFL-CIO, the Service Employees Union, Citizen Action of Wisconsin (disclosure: I worked at Citizen Action for six years) and a coalition called We Are Wisconsin are promoting the anti-Republican recalls with intensive grassroots, door-to-door organizing drives. They are also staging bus tours to the districts and holding rallies with local supporters of the Democratic challengers. 

The recall efforts appear to be well-organized. Last Saturday morning in a northern Milwaukee suburb, progressive U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin fired up about 100 volunteers working to defeat Republican Sen. Alberta Darling and replace her with State Rep. Sandy Pasch, who has been waging a hard-hitting campaign against Darling’s support for massive $800 million cuts in public education while backing massive new corporate tax breaks.

Volunteers for Pasch seemed unfazed by the Republicans’ redistricting plans, confident that the GOP’s maps will face a strong challenge in court.

State Rep. Fred Kessler (D‑Milwaukee), perhaps the state’s reigning expert on re-districting, expressed shock at the Republican plan when reached by phone in Tuesday night in Utah. It’s the most partisan redistricting I have ever seen,” said Kessler, a former judge.

The Republicans appear to have shaped the new districts in order to create 59 Republican-leaning Assembly districts compared to just 40 for the Democrats, despite the Democrats averaging 53.4% in the last five presidential races, said Kessler, who under the plan would be living outside the new district he represents.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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