By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Public unions are displaying a united front after Tuesday’s public drubbing of their preferred candidate, Kathleen Falk, in the gubernatorial recall election.
But internal dissension lies behind the smiles and the pro-Tom Barrett campaign signs, over union leadership’s early decision to endorse former Dane County Executive Falk before other candidates got in the race and, perhaps, against the wishes of rank-and-file union members.
How deep, lasting and significant that dissension remains to be seen.
But Tuesday’s election, in which Democrats overwhelmingly chose Milwaukee Mayor Barrett to take on Gov. Scott Walker in the June 5 recall election, clearly indicated union votes are not dictated by union endorsements.
Some are wondering whether labor unions’ political power is what it used to be.
Before Tuesday’s vote, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim said the primary “is going to tell just how strong the unions are as a political force in Wisconsin.”
Will Powell Jones, a labor union expert who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said unions are good at mobilizing voters, but they have limited influence on how their membership votes.
“I think it (Tuesday’s vote) actually indicates something that has been true for a while, which is the ability of unions to affect elections has been dramatically overestimated,” Powell said.
Even before Tuesday’s election, it was clear union leadership and rank-and-file members might not be on the same page.
Union households indicated they preferred Barrett to Falk, 47 percent to 28 percent, in a Marquette Law School poll of registered voters taken April 26-29, with a margin of error of 4.7 percent.
Ronald Brewster, a New Auburn retiree, on Monday told Wisconsin Reporter: “I’m a teachers’ union member, but I’m pissed off at the union for picking someone before the primary.”
And John Matthews, executive director of Madison’s teachers union, told Slate.com the other unions made a mistake in endorsing Falk so early in an attempt to “freeze out Tom Barrett.”
“I’ve heard similar things,” Powell said.
Under Walker’s watch, aided by a Republican-controlled Legislature, 2011 and 2012 have been tough on public unions.
Act 10 limited most unionized public employees’ ability to bargain collectively to cost-of-living salary increases only, and required public employees to contribute more to their pension and health-care plans.
Unions also were required to recertify every year, with support of the majority of the union membership needed for recertification.
Annual recertification is among the provisions a federal judge struck down in March.
Those provisions were necessary, Walker argued, to enable local governments’ flexibility in addressing planned cuts.
It’s another chapter in a decades-long trend in decreasing union membership and support.
“Unions are at a low point in terms of their strength and their ability to improve wages and working conditions that we really haven’t seen since the 1920s; that’s the last time we’ve seen unions as weak was they are now,” Powell said.
Heim said union leaders will face “some recriminations” because of internal disagreements with members over the recall endorsements.
Heim does expect, however, for unions to unite fully behind Barrett, because it’s the only hope Democrats have of ousting Walker.
His expectation appeared to bear out Wednesday at a “unity march” in downtown Madison organized by We Are Wisconsin, a political action committee largely funded by Washington-based unions.
“We are going to end the divisions in this state, divisions that look to blame somebody for Wisconsin’s problems instead of looking for real solutions,” said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s main teachers union. “We are going to stand together, and we are going to support Tom Barrett in this election.”
AFSCME Council 40 President Jim Garity echoed the sentiment.
“I am proud to stand before you today with all of you who marched together with us last February and March … with all of you who collected signatures in November and December and January and with all of you who took part in yesterday’s primary election,” Garity said, drawing cheers. “I am proud to be with you and to say loud and clear that AFSCME Wisconsin stands with you in supporting Tom Barrett’s candidacy to recall Scott Walker on June 5.”