It looks as if Governor Scott Walker will survive Tuesday’s recall vote. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls has him leading Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor Tom Barrett by 6.6 points. As of late Sunday, the betting site Intrade was predicting that Walker has a 94.5 percent chance of becoming the victor. Even Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is now saying the recall wasn’t smart. “Don’t get an election that’s divisive, that may have an influence on the presidential election,” he told MSNBC last week. “We made a mistake doing that.”
If the recall fails, what will be the takeaways from the 17 months of pitched war that Wisconsin has endured since Governor Walker proposed his dramatic reforms of pensions and privileges in the state’s public-sector unions?
Wisconsin Is Now in Play for November
The state hasn’t voted Republican since Ronald Reagan’s reelection effort in 1984, and Obama won it easily by 14 points in 2008. But the state can be competitive. Both Al Gore and John Kerry carried it by only a handful of votes — many of which may have been fraudulent, as a 2007 Milwaukee Police Department report showed.
By this fall, Wisconsin’s new voting law will probably be in effect. It limits same-day registration abuses and requires voters to show photo ID at the polls; this should reduce the role of last-minute fraudsters such as the infamous Park Avenue heiress who pled guilty to flying to Milwaukee in 2000 and passing out cigarettes to homeless people in exchange for their promise to vote for Al Gore.
The psychological blow of losing yet another recall campaign would surely reduce enthusiasm and turnout on the left, while leaving Romney with an extensive campaign infrastructure in the state: 22 offices set up by Governor Walker, firmly in place only five months before the presidential race.
Voters Will See Walker’s Reforms as Working
The recall effort couldn’t get under way until Walker had been in office a year, and this time lag clearly helped the governor. Walker can claim to have wiped out a $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes or seeing service cutbacks. Indeed, property taxes fell statewide by 0.4 percent last year, the first time they’ve fallen since 1998. The average homeowner’s property tax bill would have been about $700 higher if the previous rate of increase had continued. The state now expects to have a surplus of $150 million at the end of the current budget cycle.
Voters can see Walker’s reforms working at the grassroots level as well. Brown Deer, a suburb of Milwaukee, is saving $1 million in pension and health-care costs. More flexible work rules enabled the city to make changes in teacher schedules. “We had many teachers tell us, let’s save everybody’s job,” Brown Deer superintendent Deb Kerr told the Chicago Tribune. “We didn’t cut programs. We didn’t raise class sizes. And we maintained our level of staffing.”
At least 52 local school districts are saving an average of $220 per student because they can now shop around for health insurance for their employees. Before the reforms, unions forced the schools to do business exclusively with WEA Trust, the group run by the state’s largest teachers’ union.
The jobs picture is also improving. Last year, the state added 24,000 new jobs. Chief Executive magazine reported in 2010 that Wisconsin ranked 41st out of 50 states in terms of the ease of doing business. In its new survey, the state has jumped to 20th place, the fastest surge in the history of the magazine’s survey. Separately, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce survey just found that 62 percent of the members it surveyed plan to create jobs in Wisconsin by year’s end. A full 95 percent of CEOs surveyed said the state is headed in the right direction. “The word is out from Main Street to Wall Street that Wisconsin is the place to create jobs and expand,” says Kurt Bauer, the president of WMC.
All these positive developments explain why Democrat Barrett is talking about almost every issue except the collective-bargaining reforms that brought thousands of union protesters to the state’s capitol last year. Voters have moved on from the union agenda: In a Marquette University poll in May, only 12 percent of Wisconsin voters agreed that “restoring collective bargaining rights” was their priority.
Unions Will Have to Take a Long Look in the Mirror
A Walker victory will expose for all to see the dirty little secret of the power of public-sector unions in America: It depends on having the government collect union dues from every employee’s paycheck, and turning the dues over to the unions without the employee’s consent. No other private entity in America — no charity, no association, no company — can do that.
Walker’s reforms ended that practice. Workers can now decide if they want to pay union dues. Clearly, the answer is no in many cases.
The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees was founded in Madison in 1936, making the state the launching pad for all public-sector-union organizing in the country. But now AFSCME’s Local 24 in Madison, which represented 22,300 Wisconsin state workers last year, has seen its membership shrink by two-thirds, to 7,100. Statewide, AFSCME’s membership has dropped by more than half. Similarly, the American Federation of Teachers has lost 6,000 of its 17,000 members. Small wonder. Teachers’-union dues in Wisconsin range from a hefty $700 a year up to more than $1,000.
Labor historian Fred Siegel says Walker’s changes could provide a model for reshaping American politics. “Ending dues deductions breaks the political cycle in which government collects dues and gives them to the unions, who then use the dues to back their favorite candidates and also lobby for bigger government and more pay and benefits,” he told me.
With regard to rights and worker protections, the reduction of union power won’t affect most state workers. Governor Walker points out that the employee rights that people care about most fall under civil-service rules that his reforms don’t touch. “We have the strongest protections in the country on grievance procedures, merit hiring, and just cause for disciplining and terminating employees,” he told me. “All that stays.”
Watch How Union Members Voted
Union leaders recognize the stakes of Tuesday’s vote. People will interpret defeat “as a sign of weakness and a lack of public sympathy,” Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, told the Wall Street Journal.
Perhaps sympathy for the union cause is waning among union members themselves. Many of the rank-and-file members resent their bosses’ large paychecks and alliances with liberal environmentalists and social activists. In 2010, 37 percent of union households supported Walker in his bid for governor, an election he won with 52 percent of the vote. So far this year, polls ranging from Marquette’s to Public Policy Polling (a Democratic firm) show Walker winning 38 percent to 39 percent of union households.
The key to Walker’s surprising level of union support is that labor has broken into two camps that have competing interests. Members of public-sector unions represent 55 percent of all union workers in Wisconsin. Their leaders are focused not on economic growth but on securing bigger pay, more benefits, and greater power regardless of the impact on the overall state budget. Public-sector-union households support Barrett over Walker by 66 percent to 31 percent in a recent Marquette University poll. But among the 45 percent of union households that have a member in the private sector, Barrett leads by much less: 49 percent to 45 percent. Among non-union households, Walker has a substantial lead.
Governor Chris Christie, a strong Walker supporter, sees the split within labor as the most underreported story in American politics. “There is a divide between private and public-sector unions that Republicans can benefit from if we convince those whose livelihood depends on economic growth and job creation that we can bring that to them,” he told me. The strategy has worked for Christie in New Jersey. “All my key reforms passed with support from Democratic legislators with roots in private-sector unions, while the public-sector unions defended the status quo.”
Regardless of who wins in Wisconsin, a final lesson is clear: Voters are paying attention. The state has weathered an outpouring of political activism that few states have ever seen. In 2003, during the media-saturated recall election of Gray Davis in California (which sparked the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger), only 36 percent of voting-age adults showed up at the polls. The estimate for turnout in Wisconsin on Tuesday is 60 to 65 percent of all adults. In comparison, the average turnout in the last 60 years for a midterm election for governor has been only 47 percent. Marquette University polls have found that this year one in five Wisconsin voters said they had given money to a candidate; more than half said they had personally tried to influence someone else’s vote; and two-thirds said they talked politics with family and friends at least once a week.
Whatever the outcome, no one can say that the Wisconsin recall results don’t represent an informed choice by an energized and interested electorate.
—John Fund is the national-affairs columnist for NRO.