From Red States to Blue States: What’s After Wisconsin

by Daniel DiSalvo

After a three-week standoff, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled state senate plunged ahead with a major reform of Wisconsin’s public-sector labor laws. The bill has now also been passed by the state assembly and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker.

In response to the Republicans’ move, the opposition — government-workers unions and Democrats — claims the battle has just begun. Some of the unions are threatening a court challenge over irregularities in the way the senate bill was passed. They have also promised to initiate recall proceedings against some Republican state senators and against Governor Walker next year (when he will be eligible). They claim, with some evidence, that public opinion is on their side. Governor Walker has lost political capital — partly because he too often got caught in the thicket of budget details and did not do a great job making his case for reform. And the unions have had the magic words “workers” and “rights” on their side.

However, the heat generated by this episode may soon cool. It probably won’t prove to be the catalyst for reviving the private-sector labor movement. In terms of the recall petitions, public opinion is not evenly distributed and most Republican state senators were elected from safe seats. For Governor Walker, a year in American politics is a long time. If layoffs of government employees are averted, public ire may subside. Furthermore, the consequences of narrowing collective-bargaining rights, reducing union membership, and lessening the amount of money available for union political activity will not have immediate effects visible to most voters.

Scott Walker in Wisconsin is providing model for “Red State” reform of state–union relations. National attention will soon shift to the big blue states — California and New York — where battles between government-workers unions and Democratic governors and legislatures are brewing. These states are unlikely to directly confront the unions’ power, because so many Democratic incumbents’ electoral fortunes hinge on it. More likely, they will pursue a “Blue State” model of reform, which works within current collective-bargaining arrangements to beg the unions for reductions in pension and health benefits. The problem with that model, however, is that it leaves intact the dysfunctional aspects of unionized government.

Daniel DiSalvo is an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York.