Organized labor advocates are downplaying the local impact of a failed union-backed effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. However, a national labor expert said Maine could become a battleground between labor and a GOP spurred by its victory in the birthplace of public-sector unions.
“Unions are going to try and minimize this, but Wisconsin is an unmitigated disaster for organized labor,” said Gary Chaison, a labor specialist at Clark University. “This shows them at their weakest. It’s going to embolden politicians elsewhere to make additional moves against public sector unions.”
Chaison said Walker’s defeat Tuesday of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett after the governor eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees could transform Republican governors into “a bunch of Margaret Thatchers,” a reference to the former British prime minister who decimated the power of trade unions during her reign in the 1980s.
If Chaison’s prognosis is correct, the Wisconsin election raises the stakes in Maine and a November election that union-friendly Democrats hope will give them control of at least one chamber of the Legislature.
Gov. Paul LePage, who Wednesday responded to reporters’ questions about Walker’s victory with the Jamaican phrase “Yeah, mon!”, has already demonstrated a willingness to battle organized labor. Last year the governor announced that Maine would become a “right-to-work” state and his public statements have repeatedly riled labor groups. LePage recently said that middle management state employees were “corrupt.”
However, the recently adjourned Republican-led 125th Legislature was less enthusiastic about engaging in tussles with unions. The caucus failed to galvanize behind a pair of right-to-work bills that triggered significant protests last year at the State House.
Walker’s win against a determined — albeit vastly outspent — union effort to oust him may erode the reluctance to challenge organized labor, Chaison said. Additionally, he said, unions have become a reliable antagonist during a struggling economy and stagnant job growth.
“Ten or 20 years ago politicians turned to unions for endorsements,” he said. “Now they’re a good source of opposition.”
Chaison said unions have an image problem that has been exploited by governors like Walker and LePage.
“There’s a perception that public sector unions have special deals and enjoy extra protections that regular workers don’t,” he said. “It’s more perception than reality, but in this battle it’s perception that really counts.”
He added, “The unions in Wisconsin didn’t make the case that there is shared sacrifice between public sector union workers and other workers.”
Chris Quint, executive director for the Maine State Employees Association, the state’s union for public employees and teachers, said he didn’t doubt that Wisconsin would further LePage and like-minded Republicans’ “attack against collective bargaining rights.”
However, Quint said it was too early to say that Wisconsin would persuade other Republicans to support the governor’s agenda. He said his organization and other labor groups worked hard to fight the right-to-work proposals and would do so again.
“It’s true that Republicans rejected those bills, but they didn’t at first,” he said. “They got to that place because they heard from thousands of citizens, union workers and non-union workers.”
Matt Schlobohm, of the Maine AFL-CIO, said it was easy to over-interpret the Wisconsin outcome as leading to a national decline of organized labor and the rise of a “regressive, anti-labor, anti-worker, anti-middle class” policies championed by the “tea party-backed LePage and Scott Walkers of the world.”
He said, “There’s a major fight going on over what kind of economy we’re going to have. Is it going to be an economy that works for everyone? Or is going to be an economy that works for the very few, dominated by corporations and the 1 percent?”
Schlobohm said the Wisconsin result was distorted by an unprecedented influx of corporate cash that supported Walker.
An analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity showed that $63.5 million was spent during the recall campaign, shattering Wisconsin’s previous campaign spending record of $37.4 million.
Walker supporters outspent Democrats and labor interests 7.5 to 1.
Schlobohm blamed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 Citizens United decision that wiped out spending limits on corporations. While the court decision also removed campaign spending caps for labor groups, Quint, with the MSEA, said Wisconsin showed that labor could not keep pace.
Chaison said unions were in a state of denial if they blamed the Wisconsin outcome solely on campaign spending.
“What they should be recognizing is that they have lost touch with the people,” he said.
Schlobohm acknowledged that unions need to “reach out more aggressively” to non-union workers. He said all workers need to come together if “they want to balance the weight on a seesaw tilted heavily toward corporations.”
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant agreed that the Wisconsin outcome could prompt Maine Republicans to target public workers’ collective bargaining rights if they retain power in Augusta. However, he rejected Chaison’s argument that Wisconsin demonstrated the weakness of organized labor.
“What happened in Wisconsin invigorated the labor movement,” Grant said.
It also appears to have invigorated LePage and other Republicans. The governor said Wednesday that Wisconsin showed that unions in Wisconsin “overplayed their card.”
“It’s one thing to say that you don’t like a governor’s policies,” he said. “It’s a totally different thing to try to throw him (Walker) out with cheap political pranks.
“I will tell you something: government unions are hurting the citizens of all states,” LePage added. “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Rick Bennett, one of six Republican candidates hoping to replace U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said in a written statement that Walker’s victory “sends a message that citizens want responsible government spending, not bloated bureaucracies.”
Chiason predicted more bold talk from more Republicans. And, he said, more self-doubt for organized labor.
“A lot of them are saying now, if this could happen in Wisconsin, what’s going to happen here?” he said.
Susan Cover, Kennebec Journal staff writer, contributed to this story