Wisconsin Recall Post-Mortem: Implications for Labor

Cross posted at Workplace Prof Blog.

As one of the few labor law professors here in the State of Wisconsin, and as a close election watcher, I think it is incumbent upon me to give my two cents on the meaning of the Walker recall election for the labor movement in Wisconsin and in the United States.

Although Governor Walker survived the recall with a 53%-46% margin, there are a number of points I wish to emphasize:

1) First and foremost, the Citizens United decision played a huge role.  Walker raised some $31 million for the recall (much from out-of-state billionaires like the Koch Brothers) while Barrett raised only $4 million. Given the 8-1 disparity in spending, perhaps it is surprising that there was a not a bigger win for Walker.  Also, these numbers belie the sometime allegation of conservatives that unions are raking in huge sums of cash through union dues.  Citizens United primarily favors large corporate donors, plain and simple.

2) I think that the result might have been more about the recall process then saying anything about Walker’s agenda or labor’s future.  Truth be told, a good segment of the Wisconsin electorate never bought into the idea that a recall was appropriate even if they were against Walker’s policies (exit polls from Wisconsin show that 60% of voters think recalls are inappropriate except for malfeasance — not just when you disagree with policies).   Indeed, when one considers that 19% of Walker voters (according to exit polls) were planning to vote for Obama in November, that makes a lot of sense if one considers that people do not like special process elections like the one we had last night.  So, in short, surviving a recall is not the same as winning an election.

3) Union voters came out in droves to vote (from 26% of the electorate in 2010 to 32% of the electorate last night). Yet, and this is important, the labor vote was not monolithic.  Some 36% of union voters (again, according to exit polls) voted for Walker.  Many union members, especially those in the police and firefighter union are Republicans, so no surprise there. But there is anecdotal evidence tha some union members who did not approve of Walker’s anti-labor policies, still voted for him in the recall, saying that a recall was not the appropriate process given the situation.  Again, the recall may be more about people being against special process elections than anything else.

4) Silver linings?  Two.  (a) Obama did very well in exit polls (winning 45%-38%) among the voters. Although Obama has been far from a great president for labor, he is still a much better option for labor types than Romney. (b) The state senate flipped back to Democratic control, which means even though the senate has no planned sessions for the rest of the year, Walker will be unable to hold special sessions to discuss right-to-work legislation and other conservative agenda items. However, elections occur in Nov. 2012 again for all state assembly seats and some state senate seats, and the important thing for Dems will be to hold the senate majority for Jan. 2013. If they can, Walker’s agenda will be dead in the water for the last two years of his governorship.

5) What does the recall mean for Walker?  Although some say he should be emboldened and bolstered by the victory, his victory speech last night sounded a conciliatory tone. Whether his words are sincere or they result from his realizing that he can’t govern by fiat anymore, is anyone’s guess.  He also might recognize that he is very much the target of a John Doe investigation and still may be indicted.  Either way, I doubt that he is a viable vice president candidate given his pending legal issues, his polarizing nature, and the unlikelihood that Romney could win Wisconsin.

6) Finally, what impact, if any, does Walker’s recall victory have on other states considering similar labor law reforms. Personally, I think the impact will be small. If anything, the lesson of Wisconsin is that one can get more bees with honey than vinegar. Although most of Walker’s labor reforms remain in place (though legal challenges are still pending), Walker, and allied state senators, have had to endure a year’s worth of recall efforts that wasted their time and money.  For other governors contemplating similar changes, the lesson should be not to go Walker’s route if they want to avoid the problems that he has faced. One also has to remember that the Wisconsin recall did not take place in a vacuum and that just last November, Ohio voters resoundingly defeated an anti-collective bargaining bill. So, I think the ripple effects will be miminal in other states from this recall, given the totality of results across the states, and we won’t know for sure how aggressive GOP Republican governors will be on the labor front until the voters have spoken again in November.

So, in all, not a good night for Democrats and their labor allies in Wisconsin.  A fatal blow? No. Unions, private and public, will live to fight another day. Union values are too important for many in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the country. And at the end of the day, 1.1 million Wisconsinites voted to recall one of the most anti-labor, pro-corporate governors in the country.

Am I making lemonade out of lemons? Perhaps. But it would be mistake to draw too many definitive conclusions for the labor movement or for the presidential election in November based on the Wisconsin recall experience.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Tom Kamenick

    That’s a serious mischaracterization of Citizens United. Citizens United dealt with limitations on independent expenditures for advocacy of candidates by corporate entities out of their general treasuries. It did not deal with contributions directly to campaigns, which are the numbers you are focusing on. Post-Citizens United, corporations are still prohibited from making donations directly to campaigns here in Wisconsin (and most other American jurisdictions). If you want to measure CU’s effect, you need to excise independent spending by the so-called Super PACs.

    You’re also comparing apples to oranges with the $31M vs. $4M numbers because the former includes large sums spent before the election was even certified. Under Wisconsin law, candidates facing recall can raise unlimited sums of money to oppose the recall effort, but that money must be spent on that effort before certification of the recall election occurs – once that point is reached, donations are once again capped and money received previously in excess of the normal limits that was not spent opposing the recall process must be returned. The rationale is very simple – people and groups attempting to recall a politician have no limits on how much they can spend gathering the signatures and running campaigns to encourage people to sign, so it’s only fair to level the playing field.

    Your conclusion about union spending ignores independent expenditures, both by PACs and Super PACs. GAB records show that unions have raised over $21M and spent over $18M on the various recall elections – $15M of that targetting Walker. http://www.maciverinstitute.com/2012/06/big-labor-recall-total-to-exceed-20-million/. That only includes reportable sums, missing all kinds of money spent internally communicating with and mobilizing union members as well as all the money spent from the day recall papers were filed until the recall elections were certified.

    So if you really want to compare spending fairly, you can’t rely solely on the $31M and $4M numbers. You need to include the money spent by other Democratic primary candidates, money spent by PACs and Super PACs on both sides, money spent organizing the recall effort, and money spent internally by the unions.

  2. Chris King

    Paul, did the increased spending in the wake of Citizen’s United really play a “huge role” in the election? Since Governor Walker’s union-busting bill hit the legislature floor and the Democratic senators hit the road, Wisconsin has seemingly been split into four groups with two sets of opposing pairs: Pro-Walker vs. Anti-Walker and Pro-Recall vs. Anti-Recall. Is there any polling data that shows any movement from one side of a pair to the other? What percentage of the state fell into the narrow middle ground between all four of these groups? My impression of the entire recall process is that a whole lot of time, effort, and money was spent trying to win the support of an undecided portion of the populace that was never big enough to swing an election or try to get people firmly rooted in one of the four groups to switch sides. To me, the size of the fund-raising disparity was never going to matter in this election because the vast majority of the state seemingly knew where they stood on the decisive issues (for or against Walker and for or against a recall) from the very start. So while the dollar amounts were huge, I don’t think the spending had a huge roll in the outcome of the election.

  3. Paul M. Secunda

    Thanks Tom and Chris for your thoughtful comments.

    Tom: Unions do contribute to political campaigns. No one that I know is denying that. But corporations and their super-wealthy owners contribute more (think Koch Bros, Adelman, and Freiss here). However, even when you take all expenditures together, the record still shows a 2-1 spending advantage for Walker. (See Washington Post from yesterday: http://ow.ly/bpQvO – I think similar to MacIver numbers).

    I did focus my post on amounts raised by the candidates (8-1 Walker edge), but even if you take into account all “independent” contributions, money still played, in my mind, a large role in Walker’s recall victory. And at the end of the day, I don’t think I mischaracterized Citizens United (which you explained far better than I), since my basic point is that Citizens United has allowed money to flood the political system, especially by corporate SuperPacs, in unprecedented amounts since its passage.

    Chris: there is no way that I know of measuring what impact money actually played at the end of the day in convincing voters to vote the way they did. I do not know of any statistics that you ask about. My instinct, however, is that politicians who outspend their opponents win something like 92% of elections. Clearly, Walker’s win over Barrett falls into this statistic. I also think you are right that most the electorate had made up their minds a while ago, and to me, the anti-recall, as opposed to the pro-Walker, voters decided the election.

  4. Max Minor

    Mr. Secunda,

    I think you are buying into the liberal media stance on corporate donors vs. union donors. While it seems convenient to blame corporate donations for so strongly supporting the republican candidates, the actual facts show that unions are the largest donors in recent history and most large corporations are much closer to a 50/50 split. Take a look at this website http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/list.php

  5. Michael Duff

    Mr. Minor,

    I thought the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads and other such groups are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars for election cycle purposes that they are not required to disclose to anyone. If that is wrong, I’d like to know why. If it is right, the absence of such expenditures on a site like open secrets wouldn’t mean much, would it? It defies common sense that union money however characterized could ever compete with U.S. Chamber money. Money from where? (Especially in a 12% union density country). I think that if anything, the “liberal” media has downplayed the significance of Citizens United.

  6. Joseph Slater

    First, good post Paul. Second, in response to Mr. Minor, the issue isn’t union donations vs. corporate donations in general (although in general, the latter dwarf the former). The issue here is contributions in this particular election. If there are data showing that corporate spending on this election was split anything close to 50-50, I would be interested in seeing it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.