MADISON, Wis. — Voters in Wisconsin dealt a stinging blow to the nation’s public-sector unions Tuesday in the state that first granted them broad bargaining power more than a half-century ago.
In the first recall in U.S. history in which an incumbent governor retained office, Wisconsin chose to keep Gov. Scott Walker, who sparked the recall by eliminating most collective bargaining for most public employees, as well as their ability to collect dues through payroll deductions.
(PHOTO: Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett is consoled by supporter Jovlyn Wysocki after conceding a recall election to Scott Walker during an Election Night gathering in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Tuesday, June 5, 2012.)
Although public unions will not disappear as a result, they were the clear losers in a race that confirmed Walker as a national celebrity for Republicans. They now have no prospects for recovering what they lost, with neither the money nor manpower they had when Walker rose to office.
Marty Beil , executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said his group would continue in much the way it did more than 50 years ago, when it had no bargaining rights.
“We aren’t going to go away,” Beil said. “We’re not going to pull a blanket over our head and pee in our pajamas.”
Less clear is whether President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign will suffer as a result in November, with positive exit polling for the president Tuesday tempering Walker’s headline-grabbing victory. The recall victory is a psychological boost for Republicans and confirms Wisconsin’s status as a battleground state. But the presidential election is still five months away, and experts have not found a statistical advantage to having a governor from the same party as the presidential candidate.
Walker took 52 percent of the vote in November 2010 — 1.13 million votes — to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s 47 percent when he won their first matchup.
Exit polling showed voters roughly evenly divided and passionate in their feelings about whether Walker had handled the collective bargaining issue correctly.
Jennifer Duffy , who follows governor’s races around the country at The Cook Political Report, said before the results that a victory for Walker would mean that more politicians around the country would be emboldened to take on public-sector unions.
“It will give some other governors a dose of bravery,” Duffy said.
Tim Phillips, president of the free-market conservative group Americans for Prosperity, agreed. Walker received support in the form of millions of dollars in ads run by right-wing groups such as Americans for Prosperity, which includes among its wealthy backers the industrialists Charles and David Koch.
Walker also received more than $30 million in campaign contributions, with the majority of those coming from out of state.
“It shows that people will have their back,” Phillips said of leaders willing to antagonize unions.
Labor groups showed some strength of their own, helping to gather more than 900,000 valid signatures to force the recall election against Walker and successfully recalling two Republican state senators last summer who had voted for the collective bargaining repeal.
But unions failed even to get their preferred candidate through the Democratic primary in the recall. They spent more than $4 million to back former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, only to see her beaten badly by Barrett in the primary and the resources lost for the more critical general election.
Joseph Slater, a professor of law at the University of Toledo in Ohio who has written extensively about public unions in Wisconsin and other states, said they will have a diminished role going forward.
“Even though they don’t have collective bargaining rights, unions can still hang around and do stuff . . . but they’ll be a lot less powerful and a lot less influential,” Slater said.
Beil’s union is no exception.
Beil acknowledged that the state employees union has reduced somewhat its average dues amount and has seen between 25 percent and 40 percent — he won’t be more specific — of its members stop paying dues. The union has had to leave some of its jobs unfilled when the positions open up.
In addition, Beil’s union and most others that are part of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees decided last year not to seek annual recertification elections under a difficult-to-satisfy provision in Walker’s law. That meant at the time that those unions could still exist but government employers did not have to recognize them.
The Wisconsin Education Association Council, which represents most public school teachers, still has two-thirds of its local unions under contract with school districts, said Mary Bell , WEAC’s president. Of the remaining one-third without a contract, about 70 percent are paying dues, Bell said.
In August, WEAC laid off 40 percent of its staff when the provisions of Walker’s legislation kicked in that allowed public employees to opt out of paying union dues and prohibited government employers from collecting those dues for unions. Bell said the union has kept its number of positions steady since that layoff of some 40 workers.
Many teachers unions did win recertification elections. But they can bargain with school districts only over limited aspects of their pay.
“Win or lose, we don’t give up advocating for our members,” Bell said.
The blow to labor groups in Wisconsin is also significant, Slater said, because in 1959 Wisconsin became the first state in the country to grant bargaining rights to public employees.
But Slater cautioned that there were other national lessons from the past year and a half. He pointed out that in his home state of Ohio, GOP Gov. John Kasich suffered an embarrassment last year when a similar rollback of collective bargaining for public employees was struck down by voters in a resounding referendum.
There is one small area of optimism for unions: a March ruling by a federal judge that struck down limited aspects of Walker’s legislation as unconstitutional.
Specifically, the judge struck down a part of the law that said unions had to be recertified annually by getting a majority of all potential members to vote to keep a union, rather than simply a majority of those voting. He also struck down a provision that barred the state from deducting dues from the paychecks of those who chose to join unions.
That opened up the possibility that labor groups such as the Wisconsin State Employees Union could regain their official status with the state and now limited bargaining ability.
For Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, the results in Wisconsin were far from definitive for a presidential election still five months away. Wisconsin hasn’t been won by a Republican candidate for president since Ronald Reagan’s re-election landslide in 1984.
In addition, the exit polling among voters Tuesday showed Obama leading among those at the polls. Charles Franklin , a pollster at Marquette University Law School, said those responses confirmed his own survey last week that showed Walker and Obama up in the state.
Obama’s campaign provided resources to the recall effort, but the president didn’t campaign in the state for Barrett. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said the president could pay a price with Democrats in the fall for that.
Franklin agreed that Romney and Republicans could still get a psychological boost from Walker’s victory and be motivated to spend more resources and work harder in the state this fall. But he said that would be less important than some people imagine.
Voters in Wisconsin, he said, have routinely elected Republicans and Democrats in statewide elections, making the June vote no guarantee for November.