What the Recall Meant
Making sense of the Wisconsin vote

The victory speech, June 5, 2012


Like the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which slowed the forward march of industrial unionism, and Ronald Reagan’s victory over the air-traffic controllers in 1981, the victory of Scott Walker in the Wisconsin recall election will be remembered as an inflection point in the history of both American statism and American labor unionism. Public-sector unionism has been on a roll for the past 40 years. It has managed to bring together the union and civil-rights strands of the Democratic party into a potent political force. Public-sector unions, explained Andy Stern — until recently the president of the Service Employees International Union and a close ally of the Obama White House — “are the most powerful political force in the country.” But that may no longer be the case.

Wisconsin, deservedly famous for the Midwestern amiability of its citizens, might seem an odd locale for a conflict that has taken on elements of a civil war. But the bitter conflict between Scott Walker — the self-described “Tea Party governor” who stripped public-sector unions of their pivotal ability to automatically collect union dues from their members — and the labor movement is intense, because the oversize government-workers bloc, arguably a bearable burden during times of prosperity, threatens to capsize Wisconsin’s fisc. And if that seems like an overstatement, it’s important to note that one of Walker’s most effective tropes was to point across Wisconsin’s southern border to Illinois, where the union stranglehold has produced functional bankruptcy. In Illinois, he has noted, “they’re now shutting down state facilities, laying off tons of public employees, and cutting Medicaid, while we added money to Medicaid and avoided massive layoffs.”

Part of Walker’s victory came from the support of private-sector unions, who — unlike government unionists, who grow by extraction –have a direct stake in the strength of the private-sector economy. Support for Walker and Barrett was nearly evenly split among private-sector unionists. This points both to a great opportunity for the Republicans in November and to Mitt Romney’s liabilities: It’s hard to imagine a political personality — save for Barack Obama — less appealing to working-class whites.

The 2009 and 2010 elections, and now the first important election of 2012, have all gone the GOP’s way. But Walker’s victory will hardly settle the issue of government unionism. Government unions won smashing victories in California (2005) and Ohio (2011). Don’t expect them to exchange their swords for plowshares. They’ve been diminished but they’re far from defeated. La Luta continua.

– Fred Siegel is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

However much the unions try to minimize the re-election of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, this is a very ominous loss for them. The recall was initiated, organized, and funded by them in retaliation for Walker’s common-sense collective-bargaining reforms in a state being bankrupted by the excesses of public-employee unions.   

The Wisconsin results remind me of former archbishop Cyril Garbett’s famous saying, “Any fool can criticize, and many of them do.” Contrary to critics’ claims, Walker’s reforms have been so successful that they have improved the state’s economy. Unemployment is now on a downward trend. And he has turned a $3.6 billion inherited deficit into what will be a $154 million budget surplus by 2013.

Weak-kneed politicians in Washington (including certain presidential candidates) should take a lesson from Walker’s determined and unbowed performance, and his willingness to move forward with government and economic reforms in the face of frenzied opposition. They should keep in mind Eugene O’Neill’s view: “Critics? — I love every bone in their heads.”

— Hans A. von Spakovsky is senior legal fellow/manager at the Civil Justice Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation.