How Labor Helped Bring Down Scott Walker and Bruce Rauner

Rachel M. Cohen November 7, 2018

Anti-union governors Scott Walker and Bruce Rauner both lost re-election Tuesday night. (Win McNamee/Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Tues­day night, in a strong rebuke to the anti-labor agen­das of Wis­con­sin and Illi­nois’ Repub­li­can gov­er­nors, vot­ers elect­ed Democ­rats to lead their states. Illi­nois’ new gov­er­nor, Demo­c­rat J.B. Pritzk­er, won the race with 54 per­cent of the vote, while Wisconsin’s new gov­er­nor, Tony Evers, won his con­test, though final votes are still being tal­lied. Both ran on strong, clear mes­sages of sup­port­ing unions and work­ing families. 

It would be hard to under­state the dam­age to work­ers wrought by Scott Walk­er, elect­ed dur­ing the Tea Par­ty wave of 2010, and Bruce Rauner, elect­ed in 2014. Walk­er wast­ed no time tak­ing aim at orga­nized labor: In 2011 he pro­posed the noto­ri­ous Act 10, leg­is­la­tion which stripped pub­lic school teach­ers of their right to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain, on top of slash­ing their health insur­ance and pen­sion ben­e­fits. Act 10 inspired 100,000 peo­ple to protest at the state capi­tol, but when Walk­er eas­i­ly won a recall elec­tion in 2012, he grew embold­ened. Repub­li­cans repealed Wisconsin’s pre­vail­ing wage laws for state and local gov­ern­ment fund­ed projects, and Wisconsin’s min­i­mum wage remains stuck at $7.25. The last time it was raised was near­ly a decade ago.

Pri­or to Act 10, the state’s largest teach­ers union — the Wis­con­sin Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion Coun­cil (WEAC) — boast­ed 98,000 mem­bers. By 2016, that num­ber had dropped to 36,074. As of August, WEAC mem­ber­ship had fall­en even fur­ther, to just over 32,000 edu­ca­tors. Over­all union mem­ber­ship across the state is down too: There were 355,000 union mem­bers across Wis­con­sin in 2010, but as of 2017, that num­ber stood at 230,000.

In Illi­nois, Rauner’s record was sim­i­lar­ly hos­tile to work­ers. Upon tak­ing office in 2015, the governor’s first order of busi­ness was to intro­duce his so-called Turn­around Agen­da” — a wish-list of 44 pro­pos­als that he insist­ed were need­ed to save the state. Among them were calls to elim­i­nate col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for pub­lic sec­tor unions, estab­lish right-to-work zones through­out the state, and end pre­vail­ing wage laws. He lat­er would veto a bill that would have raised his state’s $8.25 min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour by 2022, and issued an exec­u­tive order that gave state work­ers per­mis­sion to not pay union agency fees, a decree that led ulti­mate­ly to the case which end­ed agency fees for good at the U.S. Supreme Court, Janus v. AFSM­CE.

Mean­while, the con­trast pre­sent­ed by their oppo­nents, Pritzk­er and Evers, was tremen­dous. Both Democ­rats sup­port rais­ing the min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour, and spoke often about the impor­tant role unions play in build­ing strong, inclu­sive economies. Pritzk­er described his intent to beef up enforce­ment for a 2010 wage theft law, and a state task force meant to tack­le work­er mis­clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Evers, who has served as Wisconsin’s state super­in­ten­dent since 2009, spoke reg­u­lar­ly about the ways Act 10 hurt edu­ca­tors, and pub­lic edu­ca­tion more broad­ly. He also spoke out against changes made to the state’s pre­vail­ing wage laws, and Wisconsin’s pro­hi­bi­tion on local com­mu­ni­ties rais­ing their min­i­mum wage or pass­ing oth­er pro-work­er mea­sures like paid sick leave.

Unions helped make Tues­day night’s vic­to­ries a reality.

One pow­er­ful fac­tor was the Red for Ed move­ment — the nation­al teacher-led push to reclaim pub­lic schools. In Wis­con­sin, twen­ty per­cent of vot­ers ranked edu­ca­tion as their most impor­tant issue this elec­tion, and Christi­na Brey, a spokesper­son for WEAC, said one new fea­ture of the 2018 cycle was the influx of new grass­roots pub­lic school advo­ca­cy groups mobi­liz­ing around the state. It’s not just teach­ers, but par­ents and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers have been engaged in ways we haven’t seen before,” she said. Whether you’re an edu­ca­tor, or a con­struc­tion work­er, or in pub­lic ser­vice or in the pri­vate sec­tor, it’s just been crys­tal clear that Walker’s poli­cies have hurt our families.”

In Illi­nois, one union took a par­tic­u­lar­ly uncon­ven­tion­al strat­e­gy to help defeat Rauner. In addi­tion to the broad coali­tion of labor groups that ral­lied ear­ly and loud­ly behind Pritzk­er, the influ­en­tial Inter­na­tion­al Union of Oper­at­ing Engi­neers Local 150 helped fund a pro-union con­ser­v­a­tive can­di­date, Sam McCann, who ran to Rauner’s right on a host of social issues. Local 150 rep­re­sents work­ers in the land­fill and pub­lic works indus­tries, and near­ly half of its mem­bers are reg­is­tered Republicans.

We felt we need­ed to pro­vide our con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers a labor friend­ly alter­na­tive to Rauner,” said Ed Maher, the spokesper­son for Local 150. Trump and Rauner didn’t become pres­i­dent with­out the help of union vot­ers.” Maher acknowl­edged some oth­er Illi­nois unions ques­tioned their strat­e­gy of back­ing a far-right can­di­date, but he defend­ed their approach. It’s math, peel­ing off more votes from Rauner, and if we’re not will­ing to be as ruth­less as our ene­mies, then labor’s hope for vic­to­ry is dim,” he said.

In the end, Sam McCann won just over 4 per­cent, falling short of the 5 per­cent thresh­old need­ed to place the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty auto­mat­i­cal­ly on the Illi­nois 2020 ballot.

The night wasn’t a total win for labor-backed can­di­dates in the Mid­west. Randy Bryce, the union iron­work­er and labor activist, lost his Wis­con­sin con­test to Repub­li­can Bryan Steil. And Richard Cor­dray lost his Demo­c­ra­t­ic governor’s bid in Ohio.

Still, with Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nors elect­ed in Michi­gan, Wis­con­sin, Penn­syl­va­nia and Min­neso­ta — many work­ing fam­i­lies in the region have brighter years to look for­ward to. 

Rachel M. Cohen is a jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton D.C. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rmc031
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