On Class and Unions in Wisconsin’s Recall Election

I’m just getting around to reading some of the analysis following Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s successful electoral victory against recall.

First, Abby Scher argues in “In Wisconsin, Union Defeat Doesn’t Mean Tea Party Win” that Walker’s victory did not rely on switching from economic class issues to cultural ones, but rather by framing the economic interests of the population as being opposed to public sector unions.

“While Thomas Frank would assert that blue-collar voters of modest income are swayed from voting their class interest by conservative social issues like gay rights or abortion, [Walker’s campaign] was all about unions and economic issues. [….]”

“Unlike Tea Party voters, who tend to be better off and more likely to slash and burn the social safety net, less well-off voters support government action and a social safety net. But this constituency also feels abandoned by elected representatives who too often ignore them in favor of big donors, he argued. This breeds its own resentment.

If government doesn’t represent them, then why should they support the government workers who make more money than they do?

Instead of a referendum on “economic freedom” and slashing the safety net [which is how the Democratic opposition framed the issue], [Walker’s] attack on public unions managed to focus resentment on workers who are better off than many.

Where government jobs are disproportionately held by people of color, the “government union” talking point can also mobilize racial resentment without mentioning race.

Rather than pure ideology, the Republican strategy of pitting non-unionized private sector workers against unionized public workers is based in the real failures of the union movement, argues Doug Henwood.

In “Walker’s victory, un-sugar-coated“, he writes, “twice as many people (68%) think that unions help mostly their members as think they help the broader population (34%).”


A major reason for the perception that unions mostly help insiders is that it’s true. Though unions sometimes help out in living wage campaigns, they’re too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class. Public sector workers rarely make common cause with the consumers of public services, be they schools, health care, or transit.

Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats—$45 million of it this year alone (Labor: Long-Term Contribution Trends). What do they have to show for it? Imagine if they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere.

Like many, on both sides of the political spectrum, Henwood recognizes the weight of this failure for the Left. He writes:

Collective bargaining has mostly disappeared in the private sector, and now looks doomed in the public sector. There are something like 23 states with Republican governors and legislative majorities ready to imitate Walker who will be emboldened by his victory. And there are a lot of Dems ready to do a Walker Lite. If they don’t disappear, public sector unions will soon become powerless.

His suggestion:

[I]f unions ever want to turn things around—and I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that we’ll never have a better society without a reborn labor movement—they have to learn to […] act politically, to agitate on behalf of the entire working class and not just a privileged subset with membership cards.

Tagged , ,

2 thoughts on “On Class and Unions in Wisconsin’s Recall Election

  1. I hope to summarize some of the main points soon, but in the meantime, here is a collection of short pieces for further reading. From Labor Notes: Heartbreak in the Heartland: Voices from Wisconsin.

  2. In contrast to Scher and others’ assesment that the Republican campaign moved away from “cultural” issues towards the terrain of “economic” ones (I place these both in quotes because the lines are not as clear as they appear.), Alan Ruff highlights the role of “race”, anti-elitist rhetoric, gender, and typical conservative issues in the campaign battle.

    Also, his comments on the Democratic Party are quite interesting. He asserts that the lack of support for the recall election from Obama and the national level of the Party, as well as from the national trade union leadership had to do with their fear of their base and a potential mass movement that would push for more radical measures than that which the Party is advancing.

    He writes:

    A kind of mistrust of an uncontrolled mass movement exists; a downright mistrust, if not fear of an uncontrolled popular insurgency from below. The Democratic leadership and its labor allies absolutely dread a return of those kinds of movements and mass mobilizations, dating back to the Great Depression and extending through the strike wave immediately following World War II, the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s, and the Anti-War Movement later that decade, that challenged power from below succeeded in exacting concessions from the system.

    Such insurgencies, polarizing in their effect, also provoked the kinds of reaction that led to the ascendancy of Nixon and Agnew, the McGovern beating in ’72, the rise of the “New Right,” Carter’s loss in ’80 to Reagan and worse, subsequently. In response, the Democratic leadership chose a more conservative course, one leery of its own social base.

    It is an interesting, yet unsubstantiated, thesis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: