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Unions Lost Big In Wisconsin Recall Attempt

June 7, 2012
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WASHINGTON (AP) - Gov. Scott Walker's definitive victory in Wisconsin's recall election is already reverberating in other state capitals. It exposed the shrunken political muscle of the unions that tried to oust him, underscoring their vulnerability and inability to retaliate.

Republicans in some nearby states where union-controlling measures failed this year say they now plan to use Walker's victory to mount renewed efforts in 2013.

Instead of ejecting the Republican who slashed state and local government workers' job benefits and bargaining powers, the union-instigated recall has made Walker a heroic model five months before the November election.

Article Photos

AP Photo
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker holds his first cabinet meeting at the state Capitol Wednesday in Madison, Wis., after he won a recall election.

"I think it's bad news for the labor movement," said John Russo, a labor studies professor at Youngstown State University. "It gives the impression they are not as strong as they once were, which they are not."

Labor leaders maintain that the fight was worth it, that the protests against Walker and bitter divisions it created will make other governors and legislators think twice before making similar forays against unions.

But Walker's victory is encouraging Republicans in other states to push ahead with their own efforts to curtail unions' power and chop away at the benefits gained for their members over the years.

GOP lawmakers in states such as Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and New Hampshire are likely to push harder for right-to-work legislation or other measures that restrict automatic union dues collection.

No labor fight had so captivated Americans since President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers for illegally striking in 1981, a move that encouraged businesses to take tougher stands against unions and helped precipitate a steep decline in union membership.

"I consider it bigger than the air traffic controllers," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "I think it's going to embolden employers in bargaining and discourage workers from joining unions. I think it's hitting unions on all fronts."

Republicans in some states near Wisconsin are paying attention.

"Not only is there the momentum in favor of the kinds of reforms that Gov. Walker advocated for and got passed, but there becomes a competitive issue," said Minnesota state Sen. Dave Thompson, a Republican who's sponsoring an amendment to his state's constitution to make Minnesota a right-to-work state.

"It becomes harder for places like Minnesota to compete economically with states that make positive reforms that benefit the business climate and make life easier on taxpayers," Thompson said.

In Missouri, state Sen. Dan Brown is hoping the Wisconsin recall results will encourage the Legislature's large, yet reluctant GOP majorities to move forward next year with bills limiting some union powers. Brown wants to pare back mandatory wages on public works projects and halt the perpetual deduction of union dues from public employee paychecks by requiring annual written authorization.

After Republicans swept to power in dozens of state legislatures in 2010, unions have spent millions battling anti-labor measures across the country.

They were already smarting this year after Indiana became the first state in a decade to pass right-to-work legislation and Michigan banned automatic deduction of union dues from teacher paychecks.

Their loss in Wisconsin far overshadowed the unions' biggest political win in the past year, when Ohio voters last November struck down in a referendum a law pushed by Republican Gov. John Kasich curbing collective bargaining rights for public workers.

Public employee unions suffered two more losses Tuesday in California. Voters in San Diego approved a ballot measure that imposes a six-year freeze on pay levels used to determine pension benefits for city workers. A measure approved in San Jose requires city employees to pay up to 16 percent of their salaries to keep their retirement plan or accept more modest benefits.

AFL-CIO political director Mike Podhorzer said unions should get more credit for the Ohio win and for collecting nearly 1 million signatures to initiate the Wisconsin recall. Walker and his supporters spent $47 million - compared with Democrats' $19 million - to counter a union effort that pushed voter turnout to levels usually seen during presidential contests.

"This is not an experience many politicians want to go through," Podhorzer said.

Still, the turnout effort fell short of producing the unions' hoped-for results. Exit polls showed voters from union households breaking 63 percent to 37 percent for Democrat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. That's virtually the same as in the 2010 governor's race, even though union households represented a bigger greater share of the electorate this time.

Walker had convinced the Republican-led Legislature that limiting collective bargaining and making union members pay more for their health coverage and pensions was necessary to plug a $3.6 billion state budget shortfall. Labor leaders claimed he also wanted to cripple unions by banning automatic dues deduction for public employees.

Since the new Wisconsin law took effect, the state's second-largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has lost nearly half of its members in the state. The documents show that between March 2011 and February 2012, Wisconsin membership in AFSCME dropped from 63,577 to 34,942.

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