While hardly surprising to anyone who read the polls, yesterday’s victory by Republican Governor Scott Walker was a body blow to Wisconsin unions and to American workers. Within Wisconsin, Walker’s victory ensures that his law repealing collective-bargaining rights for public employees will stay on the books, and if Republicans maintain their hold on the state senate—four of their senators faced recall elections, and as I write this at least three have survived—they will, at least in theory, be able to go forward on other parts of their Social Darwinist agenda. Whether they will—and whether they opt to go after private-sector unions, too, with right-to-work legislation—remains unclear. Such a move on Walker’s part, coming on the heels of the most divisive 18 months in the state’s history, would only escalate what is already a political civil war. Even Walker may think it the better part of valor to pass on that for now.
But the damage already done by Walker’s anti-union legislation, which eliminated public employee unions’ ability to automatically collect dues from its members’ paychecks, is vast. A May 30 article in the Wall Street Journal reported that membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union founded in Wisconsin in 1936, had declined in state from 62,818 in March 2011 to 28,745 in February of this year. Membership in the American Federation of Teachers had declined in-state from 17,000 to 11,000, the article reported. The membership numbers for Wisconsin’s largest public-sector union, the National Education Association, are not available.
Added to the prohibition on their ability to bargain over wages and conditions of work, what the dramatic drop in union membership means is that workers’ power to win a decent life either at the workplace or at the ballot box will be weakened. Union treasuries will grow smaller, as will the level of resources they can devote to election campaigns. That means not just less money to campaign for union-specific issues, but for the whole panoply of causes (and the candidates who back them) that unions routinely support—women’s and minority rights, affordable higher education, financial regulation, the works.
The larger question coming out of Wisconsin is whether the result will embolden other Republican governors to go down this path. Some, of course, have already tried and been soundly rebuffed, most particularly Ohio’s John Kasich, whose own law repealing his state’s public employee bargaining rights was overturned by referendum last November by a 61-percent-to-39-percent margin. I’ve attempted on this blog to analyze why the outcomes were so different, especially since Wisconsin is by every measure a more liberal state than Ohio. I’ve noted that Ohio union activists had the ability to wage a timely referendum campaign, while Wisconsin law has no provision for referendums, and the recall—a more complicated question—had to wait more than a year before being put before state voters. (more…)