Labor Stresses Ground Game Against Republican Riches in June 5 Recall Fight

Roger Bybee

A digital timer counting down the days, minutes and seconds to the recall election for Gov. Scott Walker appears on the website of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, underscoring the urgency felt by backers of the effort to unseat the fiercely anti-union Walker.

Now, just four days remain before the June 5 recall vote where Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, will face off against Walker. Labor groups and their main coalition, We Are Wisconsin, are working all-out to maximize turnout among working people, the poor, and people of color.

It’s totally the grassroots and the ground game,” stressed Michael Rosen, president of American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 212 at Milwaukee Area Technical College. We have to be competitive in the media with TV, and we will be. But the ground game is the only path to victory.”

Labor’s stake in the outcome of next Tuesday’s contest is clear: In addition to the bleak future that awaits unions should Walker’s assault go unchecked, the recall race is the outgrowth of an extensive grassroots campaign that has reignited labor militancy. The recall effort grew out of a six-week siege on the Capitol in early 2011 by hundreds of thousands of unionists and supporters opposing Walker’s effort to effectively destroy the right of almost all public employees to have union representation.

Once Walker’s Act 10 was passed, labor and its allies transformed themselves into a powerful but decentralized statewide machine that gathered over one million signatures — twice the required number.

So what awaits as the fateful day approaches? On the surface, the June 5 vote is a replay of the November 2010 contest between Barrett and Walker. Walker won that race by 5 points, taking advantage of pervasive demoralization among Democratic constituencies in response to the Democrats’ lack of a focused, forceful response to ongoing high unemployment.

This time around, labor and its allies appear much more mobilized behind not only Barrett but the Democratic candidates seeking to recall the Republican lieutenant governor and four GOP legislators. Candidates like President Mahlon Mitchell, the charismatic young president of the Wisconsin Firefighers Union who hopes to oust the lieutenant governor, may be capable of concentrating all of labor’s energies on overcoming Republican advantages.

Clearly, these advantages are formidable: Walker has hauled in a phenomenal $31 million, giving him an extraordinary edge of at least 81 over Barrett. Third-party groups, mostly aligned with Walker, have added to the governor’s funding advantage. According to PR Watch, The Republican Governors Association (RGA) alone has spent as much in this last month ($3.9 million) as Tom Barrett has raised.”

Until a recent fundraising visit, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz had been offering little financial assistance, infuriating Democratic and labor leaders in Wisconsin. Firefighters International President Harold Schaitberger bluntly stated, I’m very disappointed that the DNC has not seen fit to make a dollar investment. When you’re facing $25 million or more in super-PAC funds, you need money.”

Though Walker had widened his lead over Democrat Tom Barrett in a poll released Tuesday from Marquette University Law School, a new Celinda Lake poll provides heartening news for pro-recall forces. Surveying 600 likely voters between May 24-28, the Lake poll showed the Wisconsin electorate split exactly down the middle at 49% for both Barrett and Walker. This is consistent with other recent polls showing the race tightening. The same poll finds that independents are breaking towards Barrett, 49 – 44

But at this point, activists among labor and its allies are ignoring the polls and remain intently focused on turning out union members, African-Americans, Latinos and young people. Bruce Colburn, a veteran leader of the Service Employees International Union and a key strategist for We Are Wisconsin, says that labor’s effort is stressing grassroots efforts to build turnout in neighborhoods of the working class and people of color.

We’re seeing people organizing ward by ward, with a system of ward captains so people are encouraged to vote by people they know,” said the AFT’s Rosen. We’ve got a strong effort going.”

Outreach to the African American community included a major rally on May 19 featuring Van Jones of the 600,000-member Rebuild the Dream organization and Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-WI), along with rappers, musicians, and artists building awareness about Walker’s impact on people of color and the state as a whole.

The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, the state’s largest union local with about 8,000 members and retirees, is intensely involved in both internal and external organizing, explained David Weingrod, a retired school social worker now working as an organizer for the 8,000-member Milwaukee Teachers Education Association.

We’re doing base organizing at the level of the school,” Weingrod noted. We’re saying this is it: If you want a career in education, then Walker is out to destroy public education and forget about your career.”

Meanwhile, as the last few days tick off, the SEIU’s Colburn said, labor will be hammering away at Walker’s strategy to divide working people and his record of prioritizing corporate tax breaks over job creation and social needs like education and healthcare.

We’ve still got to help some people connect the dots so that they can see the full picture of what Scott Walker is doing to working people and the state,” acknowledged Colburn.

Recently-released video footage shows Walker, following his election, quipping to billionaire businesswoman Diane Hendricks that he intends to divide and conquer” working people, beginning with an attack on public-sector workers’ rights in the guise of filling a small budget deficit. When Hendricks asks Walker whether he can turn Wisconsin into a completely red state, and work on these unions, and become a right-to-work” state, he replies, The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.”

Walker and his donors are now extending their attack to the private sector,” he noted.

While initially attempting to isolate public employees as the cause of high taxes in a time of declining wages, Walker’s corporate allies have begun to assault private-sector unions with a wave of demands to impose Southern – style right-to work” provisions in new labor contracts.

Walker has also stirred broad economic anxiety with his record on job creation –-a loss of 33,900 jobs from Dec., 2010 to Dec., 2011 — which ranks the worst among the 50 states in the U.S., despite his pledge to oversee the creation of 250,000 new jobs in his first term.

To defuse this explosive political shortcoming, Walker’s staff changed the method of calculating job growth, using unverified quarterly figures rather than monthly data and releasing the figures ahead of schedule. Walker’s new data — highlighted in a TV ad released just hours after the state Workforce Development agency made the data public without the standard review by the U.S. Department of Labor — purported to show a gain of 23,608 jobs in the same period. Economist Laura Dresser of the Center on Wisconsin Strategies compared the shift to data shopping,” seeking the most favorable-looking figures available.

They exerted a lot of effort to come up with data that looks more positive, but the growth of 2,000 jobs a month in a workforce of 2.7 million is still pretty close to zero,” said Prof. Dresser.

Walker is also plagued by an ongoing John Doe investigation focused on the operations of his office while he served as Milwaukee County Executive from 20022010. Already, 15 people have been indicted and six people have agreed to accept immunity in exchange for testimony. Walker now has the dubious distinction of being the only state governor with a defense fund.

The divide and conquer” statement, the unprecedented entry of big money into Wisconsin politics in behalf of Walker, the John Doe probe, and his sudden change in the grading system for jobs” have all undermined public trust in Walker, said Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. It all gets to Walker’s credibility, and the perception that he will say anything.”

Though Walker’s dubious record leaves him wide open to partisan attacks, Citizen Action, a member of the We Are Wisconsin coalition, is also engaged in a separate campaign to build lasting organization at the community level.

This is about giving people the power to change the economic policies so that they can get employment,” says Kraig. Milwaukee is the 4th poorest city in the nation, with the lowest percentage of African-American males able to find work. We don’t believe quick in-and-out effort to increasing voting really works, and we think we need to be connecting to the people to push for a long-term investment in employment.”

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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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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