Did organized money defeat organized labor?

Author:Finger, Barry
Position:Thinking Economically - Essay

That appears to be the Democratic Party's takeaway from its humbling defeat in the Wisconsin recall election. That and the ever familiar lament that workers no longer seem capable of voting consistently in their own financial interests, consistency in this case meaning in solidarity with embattled public sector workers and their unions. 38% of households with union members voted for the incumbent, as did a majority of non-college graduates. Walker carried the 10 poorest counties in the state by a 13% margin. The Wisconsin results paralleled voter-approved public sector pension cuts in San Diego, an initiative of that city's Democratic mayor, and San Jose.

How did the labor movement find itself in this predicament? The mass protests in Wisconsin ended in March 2012, when Scott Walker signed Act 10, ("the Budget Repair Bill"), turning Wisconsin's public sector into an open shop. Trade union leaders told their membership to go back to work and shifted their focus to recalls and elections. Support groups such as United Wisconsin followed suit, thereby initiating a two-pronged strategy: to reclaim the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the hope that the bill might be declared unconstitutional and to reclaim the state senate and remove the sitting governor. Union money and staff were diverted from training and organization building to the Democrats.

The Republicans nevertheless outspent the Democrats 7 to 1, two-thirds of which was raised from out of state business donors who sought to turn this election into a test case for public sector union busting.

But neither did Walker's opponent, Tom Barrett, run on a progressive platform. He never mounted a robust case for union rights and, as mayor of Milwaukee, was not above invoking Walker's Act 10 collective bargaining restrictions to increase pension and health care contributions from city workers. It is also true that Barrett was not the first choice of the labor bureaucracy. Their choice was a candidate seen by the Democratic establishment as being too progressive for the state, despite her refusal to commit to a firm stance against budget cuts and concessionary contract negotiations with public workers. The Democrats were initially pushed from below into a confrontation they were reluctant to undertake by a labor bureaucracy more comfortable with doorbell ringing and manning phone banks than with the unpredictable prospects of mass street mobilization that could easily escape their control. And, all too...

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