The Two Elections that Dealt Unions the Biggest Blows Last Tuesday Didn't Happen in Wisconsin

News at Home


Kevin Boyle teaches American history at Ohio State University. He is the author of "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age."

Last Tuesday two elections delivered brutal blows to unions and their progressive allies. Neither was in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin results were bad enough. Scott Walker’s widely-watched recall campaign pit organized labor against a phalanx of incredibly wealthy private donors, led by the billionaire who’d financed the swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004. In the end Walker didn’t simply survive the recall. He won by a larger margin than he had when he was elected governor in 2010. He did considerably better in urban areas, where his percentage of the vote shot up by a startling eight percentage points. He even gained ground in union households. There’s no doubt about it. In Wisconsin labor had suffered a tough, tough defeat.

But there were also a number of mitigating factors that helped to explain the unions’ poor showing. Money, of course: thanks to his donors’ deep interest in public affairs, Walker was able to spend seven times more than his opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. The national Democratic Party did almost nothing to counter the right’s onslaught; Bill Clinton put in an appearance, but Barack Obama didn’t. Then there was Barrett himself. During the Democratic primary Wisconsin’s most powerful public unions had supported a more progressive candidate. But Barrett beat back her challenge, then tried to distance his campaign from the labor issues that had triggered the recall in the first place. “Let’s face it, I was not their first choice,” he said during one of his debates with Walker. “The real test of leadership is whether you can say no to your friends.”

Contrast that with recent events in another battleground state. In early 2011, Ohio’s newly-elected Republican governor, John Kasich, rammed through the legislature a collective bargaining law more draconian that Wisconsin’s. Immediately Ohio’s unions launched a massive petition drive not to recall Kasich but to repeal the law through a referendum. To put the question on the November ballot they needed 231,000 signatures. They got 1.3 million. All through the autumn they ran a vigorous campaign defending union rights and slashing away at the new law as an assault on working families. The repeal passed with 62 percent of the vote. So resounding was the victory Governor Kasich still won’t go anywhere near the issue, despite Walker’s triumph on Tuesday night. “The people have spoken,” he told The Columbus Dispatch the next day. “We’ve moved on.”

From that experience it’s easy to argue that labor isn’t a spent force, as many pundits are now saying; easy to say that Wisconsin’s recall failed because the Democrats ran away from the union cause; easy to claim that labor can claw its way back to significance by making the case for workers’ rights as forcefully, as fiercely as it can. “This is what democracy looks like,” Ohio’s activists chanted as they delivered truck-loads of petitions to the State House. Given what happened after that, it’s easy to believe that they were right.

Except for those other two election results.

They were also referenda, this time on the local level. In San Jose, voters were asked to approve a dramatic reduction in municipal workers’ pensions, while San Diego’s proposal -- backed by the city’s mayor, a couple of conservative councilmen, and various anti-tax groups -- froze pension levels for current employees and abandoned them altogether for most new hires, who would be offered 401(k) plans instead.

Proponents pitched the measures as financial necessities. Both cities were crippled by their pension obligations, they said, their budgets hamstrung by deals that were far too generous even in boom times and that now, in California’s grim dark days, had to be broken. It was also a question of fairness, they insisted. Why should a teacher or firefighter retire in comfort when many people are struggling just to make ends meet? What makes them so special?

That's the real danger of what happened in California. The intense frustration of a contracting economy, the simmering resentments of the powerless were channeled into a frontal assault on the basic premise of the modern American labor movement: the promise that through organization and negotiation working people can build for themselves and their families a level of security they were never going to achieve on their own. It worked. San Diego’s referendum passed by a two-to-one margin, San Jose’s with seventy percent of the vote. That’s what democracy looks like, too.

Already the cities’ unions have filed suit to stop the changes from being put into place. But that’s a rear-guard action. To move forward, labor and its supporters have to convince far more Americans that union rights -- a principle many people seem to support in the abstract, if Ohio is any indication -- don’t pose a threat to their well-being, that union wages and benefits actually raise standards for non-union workers as well, and that in a race to the bottom nobody wins. The fight is on. The question is whether progressives still have the strength and the courage to see it through.

comments powered by Disqus