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Unions spend big money in WI, but fight is a national one

By   /   May 31, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — Big labor is pouring big money into Wisconsin as part of the effort to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker from office and end a conservative agenda that other states might follow.

A quick glance at the most recent campaign finance report from Democratic gubernatorial recall candidate and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett may help people understand the national implications of the recall election in the Badger State.

Along with the expected big campaign checks from Wisconsin unions, two national teachers’ unions based in Washington, D.C. — the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers — contributed $86,000 to Barrett in the past month.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, another national union based in the nation’s capital, chipped in $38,000 to the Barrett campaign, and dozens of smaller unions made contributions ranging from $500 to $20,000.

Wisconsin Reporter analyzed all contributions of at least $500 on the most recent round of campaign finance reports, which covered the period from April 24 to May 22, and found more than $388,000 from labor unions directly donated to Barrett.

Ciara Matthews, communications director for the Walker campaign, said unions see the Walker recall as a must-win to keep their favored place in state government.

“This clearly indicates that Mayor Barrett is not interested in keeping the power of the government in the hands of the taxpayers, but interested in restoring that power to the special-interest union groups,” Matthews said.

Four of the most active union-backed political action committees in the state spent another $2 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit with union ties that tracks independent campaign expenditures.

Those dollars were used to run ads against the governor and four Republicans state senators also facing recall June 5 or support Barrett and other Democrats.

During a campaign stop Thursday in Waukesha, Barrett said he would be happy to return out-of-state contributions, but only after Walker did the same.

Barrett’s campaign did not respond to requests for additional comment.

Bryan Kennedy, president of the AFT-Wisconsin, which represents about 17,000 public employees in the state, said he personally requested the financial assistance from the national American Federation of Teachers, which gave $43,000 to Barrett’s campaign this month.

“The real question is whether you want to have a governor who is beholden to the interests of the working class in his own state or to millionaires and billionaires in other states,” Kennedy told Wisconsin Reporter on Thursday, referencing the fact that Walker has collected far more from out-of-state contributors than Barrett.

Direct contributions tell only a part of the story, and organized labor can affect the outcome of an election in ways that do not show up on a campaign finance report.

Unions historically are good at organizing their members and driving out the vote in heavily populated, heavily Democratic areas — like in the city of Milwaukee where voter turnout will be critical if Barrett is to overcome his deficit in the polls to defeat Walker on Tuesday.

Kennedy said AFT-Wisconsin is “communicating with their members and coordinating with other labor unions” in advance of Tuesday’s recall election.

He also downplayed any divisions within the ranks of organized labor after several prominent unions in the state — including the one he leads — endorsed former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk in the recall primary.

Barrett defeated Falk in the May 10 recall primary.

But as political coalitions always do in the wake of a divisive primary battle, unions in Wisconsin and nationally have rallied behind Barrett.

Marty Beil, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 24, which represents some state and local government workers in Wisconsin and supported Falk’s campaign, said in a statement following the primary that the ultimate goal was defeating Walker.

Whether you’re a Wisconsinite or not, the stakes are too high to sit this election out,” read a portion of the missive to AFSCME members.

While Walker’s argument for cracking down on unions and collective bargaining in Wisconsin has been based on the practical matter of balancing the state budget, groups on both sides understand a more important issue is at stake — the election is a referendum on public-sector labor issues at the local, state and federal levels.

“The national unions realize that if Gov. Walker wins this recall election, other governors around the nation may start looking at this way of balancing the state budget,” Matthews said Thursday.

Unions also are worried about the loss of members if other states follow the Walker model.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that AFSCME membership in Wisconsin has declined by more than half in the year since Wisconsin repealed laws requiring workers to join unions.

Perhaps the result is not that surprising: When people are no longer required to join a certain organization, it should be expected that some will simply choose not to do so, particularly when not joining the union means they get to keep more of their paychecks.