That sound you hear may be the sputtering of Wisconsin Democrats and public-sector unions’ campaign to oust Republican Gov. Scott Walker. On Tuesday, Democrats went to the polls to choose a candidate to square off against Walker in next month’s recall election. But the union-led opposition’s hopes that the standard bearer would be a Big Labor darling were dashed with the election of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, rather than the unions’ preferred candidate, Democratic operative Kathleen Falk. Falk’s defeat marks only the latest setback for a recall campaign that is increasingly running out of steam.
The differences between Barrett and Falk are small but politically significant. Though they both pledged to eliminate Walker’s restrictions on collective bargaining for most state workers, they disagreed on the methods. Falk took the more union-friendly approach, assuring her supporters that she would veto any budget that didn’t restore collective bargaining. That promise earned her the endorsements of the state’s leading public-sector unions, including the state chapter of the AFL-CIO and the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s biggest teachers union.
Barrett refused to go as far as Falk. While he is also committed to restoring collective bargaining, he has said that he would do so by introducing the issue in a special legislative session. The latter is particularly unattractive to unions because it would require Republican support for the legislation. Barrett’s victory in the Tuesday primary means the unions’ dreams of restoring collective bargaining through gubernatorial fiat have been shattered.
Yet another setback for the unions is that their efforts to turn the recall into a referendum on collective bargaining appear to have failed. While union activists and organizers still see collective bargaining as the dominant recall issue, Wisconsin’s voters, among them many Democratic primary voters, disagree. Polling of primary voters conducted by Marquette University found that over half of those who voted in Tuesday’s primary favored Barrett’s compromise-seeking approach on collective bargaining over Falk’s and the unions’ demands that it be reinstated without debate. Collective bargaining has also faded as a galvanizing issue. Increasingly, the recall has come to resemble a general election, where the main focus is on standard issues like jobs and unemployment. Doom-saying from Democrats and their union allies notwithstanding, challenging the unions over collective bargaining has not fatally diminished Walker’s political prospects.
If all this weren’t bad enough, there are also growing divisions in the state left’s ranks. Those divisions came to the fore this week with news that the Wisconsin Democratic Party was canceling a “unity rally” this Wednesday in the state capitol to support the winner of the Democratic primary and to bring together Barrett and Falk’s respective supporters. It was not to be. Barrett declined to attend the rally, fueling rumors that he didn’t want images of him commingling with union organizers to be used against him by Walker. Still others speculated that the cancelation was a dirty trick by Falk intended to make embarrass Barrett. Whatever the explanation, this was not the kind of infighting that Democrats and unions had anticipated when they made Walker their target.
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