Any way you slice it, the refusal of Wisconsin voters to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker for limiting the collective-bargaining rights of unionized public-sector employees was a blow not only to organized labor but to the Democratic Party as a whole. On an issue that goes to the core of the American labor movement's ability to deliver for the party as its key constituency, big corporate and individual fat-cat money overwhelmed the traditional union muscle of political boots on the ground. Mr. Walker, with a 7-to-1 advantage in advertising spending, snowed under labor's door-to-door campaigning.
"Look for the union label" used to be a rallying cry for organized labor to mobilize public support. It not only encouraged the purchase of goods manufactured by its union men and women but also turned out foot soldiers, particularly in the nation's urban neighborhoods. But in Wisconsin, it was hard to see the influence of the label in the campaign to oust a governor bent on further reducing organized labor as a pygmy in the political wars.
For a movement that in the heyday of the New Deal boasted having signed up about a third of the nation's workforce, union membership has now fallen to a paltry 7 percent of the private sector. A heavy majority of what still exists is in the public sector, Mr. Walker's specific target in Wisconsin and that of Republican governors in other states, such as Ohio.
The near-collapse of major manufacturing in the American economy has been an obvious factor. Only the automobile industry has sharply rebounded, thanks to a significant hand from Uncle Sam in the Great Recession bailouts so vehemently opposed by most Republican politicians. Nevertheless, organized labor itself, often subject to hostile accusations of corruption and excessive political action, has suffered from an increasingly negative public perception -- fed, to be sure, by its Republican opponents. Regarded in the distant 1930s as the heroic defender of a struggling middle class against the malefactors of great wealth and heavy-handed union busting, the institution has become an easy whipping boy in many parts of the country.
When Mr. Walker first announced his war on public-sector bargaining rights, the huge and vocal protest that blanketed the state capitol in Madison seemed, for a time, to presage a rebirth of middle-class working stiffs standing up for those rights and putting their bodies on the line, figuratively anyway. However, once the anti-union big money started flooding into Mr. Walker's campaign, fueled by heavy contributions from wealthy political players like Sheldon Adelson, Newt Gingrich's angel, that prospect was overwhelmed. Once again, theU.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case allowing unlimited contributions loaded the deck in favor of the power of big money.
Although President Barack Obama, with characteristic caution, pretty much stayed on the sidelines in the fight, the anti-recall forces did not hesitate to link him to the defense of public-sector rights. One late ad proclaimed: "Labor union mobs led by Barack Obama's Organizing for America (a pro-Obama political action committee) are trying to intimidate and harass Governor Walker and lawmakers in Wisconsin simply because they're finally doing the right thing."
Note the use of the word "mobs." At least the ad didn't call the Obama supporters "thugs" or "goons" to conjure images of street brawling out of the bad old Roaring Twenties. In any event, Mr. Walker's success clearly was a bloody nose to the Obama campaign, and the best that could be said of it is that it was a wake-up call to organized labor to be more effective in capitalizing on this frontal assault on the core of its being. Yet, exit polls in Wisconsin indicated that voters in the recall still preferred Mr. Obama to Mitt Romney by 51 percent to 44 percent.
As the Republicans continue to accuse the Democrats of encouraging "class warfare" by demanding an end to big tax breaks for the rich, the middle-class argument over income inequality highlighted in the Occupy Wall Street protest has achieved little traction. That's not good news either for the self-styled Party of the People or its beleaguered leader in the White House.
Jules Witcover, a former longtime writer for The Sun, is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun