Wisconsin recall election result could inspire further attacks on unions

Republican governor looking to limit powers of unions in key presidential election state
By Nick Carey
|labour-reporter.com|Last Updated: 06/06/2012

(Reuters) - Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker's recall election victory and the vote of two California cities to curb the pensions of city workers may embolden political leaders across the country to take on labour unions, experts said on June 6.

On June 5, Walker survived a recall election forced by liberal critics opposed to his bold moves to limit the powers of public sector unions in a Midwestern state that could be a battleground in the November 6 presidential election.

Voters in two of California's biggest cities, San Diego and San Jose, overwhelmingly supported cutting pensions of city government workers to save money on June 5.

"This is a watershed moment, a historic moment," said Gary Chaison, professor of labour relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

"They (unions) gambled heavily and they lost heavily. It's a real problem for them," Chaison added.

The results on June 5 could also spell trouble for President Barack Obama's Democratic party, which is dependent on labour unions for votes, financial support and on-the-ground organization. The White House downplayed the notion that the Wisconsin outcome could foreshadow problems for Obama in the November election against Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

"I certainly wouldn't read much into yesterday's result beyond its effect on who's occupying the governor's seat today in Wisconsin," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One as Obama headed for San Francisco.

Walker, who has emerged as a hero to American conservatives for taking on the unions and then surviving their recall efforts, said Romney will remain an underdog, particularly in Wisconsin, where Obama won by 14 percentage points in 2008.

"But I think anyone looking at the results last night would also acknowledge that it's now competitive in Wisconsin," Walker said in an interview on MSNBC.

Unions and liberal activists forced the Wisconsin recall election over a law championed by Walker curbing collective bargaining powers for public sector workers. The state's Republican-controlled legislature passed it last year soon after Walker took office.

Walker made no apologies for going after union collective bargaining rights, but said he should have spent more time talking about it before he acted. "I was so eager to fix it, I didn't talk about it," Walker said. "Most politicians talk about it, they just never fix it."

Walker won by a larger margin than he had over the same Democratic challenger he beat two years ago, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

'TAKE A STAND'

While the Walker recall effort fell short, the state's Senate has flipped back to the Democrats, which could put a break on Walker's agenda, said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in a statement.

Democrats had tried to recall four state senators who voted with Walker and needed to oust just one to take a majority in the chamber. Three of the Republicans survived but a fourth was trailing by 779 votes in complete unofficial returns. The Republican senator had not conceded on June 6, saying there were still absentee ballots to count.

The Walker victory stands in contrast to the big union triumph in Ohio last November with the defeat of a law that sharply reduced public worker collective bargaining rights in that state.

Marick Masters, director of labour studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the difference was that in Ohio the unions went after a law and in Wisconsin they went after a person. "The political battle became highly personalized in Wisconsin," Masters said.

Harley Shaiken, a labour professor at the University of California Berkeley, said the results did not mean a wholesale assault on union collective bargaining rights nationwide. "Some legislators (in other states) will try to go down the same path but they may find it very expensive to do so," Shaiken said.

The Wisconsin outcome was the latest evidence of a growing partisan climate in American politics that values confrontation over compromise and has led to gridlock in Washington.

The votes in California and Wisconsin also suggest that some voters have grown impatient with reports of union benefit excesses and will support efforts to rein them in to balance budgets.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Republicans will try to replicate their victory in Wisconsin in the November election. No Republican presidential candidate has won Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

"Wisconsin Democrats now head into November dispirited and in disarray, while Republicans remain strong and organized, with momentum on our side," Priebus said.

Walker has not emerged completely unscathed. He still faces an investigation into alleged corruption during his time as Milwaukee County executive before he became governor.

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