Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s victory in Tuesday’s recall election isn’t a happy outcome for the activists who have spent nearly a year and a half going after him. It’s particularly troubling for labor organizers, who will face subsequent challenges with substantially less resources. The story tells us a lot about the temptations and dangers of the electoral route for social movement activists. As is often the case, organizers pursuing institutional politics wound up with much less than what they imagined possible.
Governor Walker went after organized labor aggressively upon taking office, and organized labor fought back hard, dramatically, and with imaginative flair. Activists demonstrated, occupied the capital building, and provided cover for a supportive minority of state senators to stage a quorum filibuster by leaving the state. Before Occupy, they fired the first notable mobilization by the left since the hey day of the Tea Party. (Although Occupy Wall Street cited the Egyptians in Tahrir Square as inspiration, the Madison mobilization made for a far better comparison.)
Governor Walker was extraordinarily unpopular and his opponents in Wisconsin were intensely committed. But after the senators returned and the governor’s agenda moved through the political process, activists had to figure out what to do next.
Wisconsin politics offered some alternatives, none of them easy. What seemed most attractive–because it might work and reverse the conservative tide, was the recall route. Walker’s opponents knew they had to wait to go after the governor (who had yet to serve a year in office), but targeted all of the state senators legally vulnerable to recall. Wisconsin Republicans staged their own recall campaigns against the Democratic senators who had left the state. All of the challenged Democrats survived the 2011 recall, and Democrats defeated 2 of the 4 Republican state senators they challenged. Ah, but they needed one more to gain control of the state senate.
Although this was a substantial flexing of left and labor muscle, it was also very costly. It wasn’t just the money, but also the focus and the effort, all channeled into an uphill struggle firmly rooted in electoral politics. They prepared to recall Governor Walker as soon as they were legally allowed to do so. In mid-January of this year, organizers delivered more than one million signatures on petitions to recall Governor Walker. One million signatures in Wisconsin is a truly impressive total, about twice what they needed to make the recall happen, and about as many signatures as votes against Scott Walker in 2010.
Wisconsin’s recall law requires not a mandate on the incumbent, but a choice–much like a regular election. Democrats nominated Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor whom Governor Walker had defeated in 2010.
The electoral process requires compromises and unpleasant choices. Mayor Barrett was unpopular with organized labor, and had used the new, uh, flexibility, in dealing with organized labor to balance Milwaukee’s budget. The University of Wisconsin Teaching Assistants union, which had been energetic in organizing the demonstrations in Madison, refused to endorse Barrett–or even his primary opponent, Kathleen Falk, because neither would make a strong enough commitment to undo Wisconsin’s new anti-union strictures. And after getting the nomination, Barrett chose not to emphasize the labor issues altogether. Surely he figured that the unions were angry enough about Governor Walker’s administration to vote against him anyway, and that it made more sense to focus on Wisconsin voters who were less stalwart in their support for labor. This is the normal hedging that characterizes general elections in America.
The anti-Walker campaigns were largely responsible for drawing national attention to organized Republican efforts to defund organized labor, and the recall election drew national attention–and money. Partly because of the rules, and partly because of the resources, Governor Walker raised and spent much (much much) more money than the anti-Walker forces. Walker was able to start raising money earlier, and spent nearly $30 million, more than seven times what the Barrett forces were able to raise.
Familiar conservative funders, including the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and the Tea Party Express, spent a lot of money on keeping Walker in office. Unions spent money too, but they were trounced. Essentially, the Walker opponents chose to play in an arena where they were at a disadvantage. Still, it might have been the best choice they had.
Both sides worked hard at mobilizing support, and Tom Barrett won more than 100,000 votes than he had in 2010, but Scott Walker got more than 200,000 additional votes, widening his electoral margin. Although the recall effort claimed one additional Republican state senator, the legislature may not meet until after the Fall elections.
And the people in power get to make at least some of the rules for the next election. Redistricted legislative districts are likely to disadvantage Democrats. More than that, organized labor has suffered severe losses in the wake of Wisconsin’s new laws on collective bargaining. One element of the reform banned the automatic collection of union dues. The Wall Street Journal reported that AFSCME and the NEA lost fully one-half to two-thirds of their members, who were no longer compelled to contribute to their unions. Minimally, this means even less labor money as a counterbalance to corporate contributions in the next election.
The rules of mainstream politics structure the decisions that activists make. Recall, just doing away with the Walker regime, seemed the most comprehensive and attractive alternative for Wisconsinites, but it was filled with risk. The campaign provided a thinner message than the protests in the streets of Madison and the results represented a dramatic defeat. The intense commitment of a minority, even a large minority, isn’t enough to win in a general election.
The pressing question now is to figure out what to do next.