Union folk songs are replete with exhortations for their members to never surrender no matter how the man is keeping you down, because union strength is in the collective. They write songs with titles like “Solidarity Forever,” and “Which Side Are You On?” claims that “we’ll all stick together, till every battle’s won.” Even Lisa Simpson’s union folk song boasts, “We’ll march till we drop, the girls and the fellas, we’ll fight to the death or else fold like umbrellas.”
Following passage of Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to roll back collective bargaining for government employees, public-sector unions in Wisconsin happily parlayed the solidarity card into enough signatures to force recall elections for six Republican state senators. Democrats would only need to win three of the recall elections to regain control of the state senate (three Democrats who fled the state in February also face recall elections, but the GOP faces long odds in each case).
So, given all the momentum organized labor built up before these recall elections, you’d think they’d use this opportunity to really punish Republicans for their “assault” on unions, right? Wouldn’t they spend their resources decrying the deep injustice Scott Walker foisted upon the middle class by making government employees contribute to their own pensions?
Well, not exactly.
In fact, with the television ad war in full swing, it appears that not a single ad is being run that addresses the collective-bargaining issue. As political scientist Ken Goldstein told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “We had all this drama about collective bargaining, but what is driving the advertising is fairly straightforward messaging about taxes and spending.” Even liberal bloggers around the state have picked up on this curious meme.
In fact, if someone had been passed out for the last five months (and believe me, I’ve tried), they would have no idea that unions had occupied the state capitol building for months on end.
Take, for example this ad, being run against popular Republican state senator Sheila Harsdorf (full disclosure: my former boss). It criticizes Harsdorf for supporting “cutting $800 million” from education,* yet there’s no mention of the collective-bargaining issue that landed Harsdorf in a recall election in the first place. This is especially notable given that the ad is being run by the unions themselves — the treasurer of the “We Are Wisconsin PAC” is Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the state AFL-CIO.
This pattern is being replicated statewide. The We Are Wisconsin PAC is attacking GOP senator Luther Olsen for “devastating cuts” to schools and health-care programs. They are going after Sen. Alberta Darling for approving a college tuition hike of 5.5 percent (while the previous governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, increased University of Wisconsin tuition by 18.2 percent and 15.4 percent in two successive years.)
Perhaps the most ridiculous ad of the recall cycle is one being run by Luther Olsen’s challenger, Democratic assemblyman Fred Clark, in which he vows to be an “independent voice” in the state senate. “I won’t take from our seniors or from our children just to reward some special interests,” Clark intones, presumably with a straight face. Of course, Clark is only in this race because Olsen angered the most powerful special interest in the state — the public-sector unions, who forced the recall election to begin with. Yet in Democratic circles, organized labor is never considered a “special interest.”
And while their folk songs may be execrable, the unions are very smart. They knew the collective-bargaining issue was provocative enough to get between 15,000 and 20,000 people per senate district to sign recall petitions (about 10 percent of each district’s population), but not enough to get any of their candidates elected. Unions know the people who signed recall petitions are already in their pocket — they had to quickly change gears and return to the more traditional Democrat talking points, in order to garner independent votes.
But in doing so, they betray the central tenet of their folk songs’ fighting spirit. Perhaps they need a new union song — “Solidarity Sporadically.”
* As a side note, this claim that Republicans “cut $800 million from education” is bogus — general school aids were reduced, but were replaced by the higher health-care and pension contributions required by Scott Walker’s collective-bargaining bill. The only school districts harmed were the ones who rushed back to the negotiating table to “Walker-proof” their teacher benefits, as they value teacher pension benefits more than actual teachers.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.