The lesson of Wisconsin: OK for Obama, terrible for unions

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's victory in Tuesday's recall election doesn't mean President Barack Obama is going to lose his re-election bid — or even that he will lose Wisconsin. But it clearly shows that organized labor is a seriously weakened political force that needs to reinvent itself for its sake and for the nation's.

The vote was widely billed as a preliminary skirmish in the November election between Mr. Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, but there is good reason to conclude that its predictive value is low. For starters, exit polling showed that even as voters handed Mr. Walker a convincing 53 percent to 46 percent victory over Milwaukee's Democratic mayor, Tom Barrett, a solid majority of them would have voted for Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney. On the crucial issue of improving the economy, more of them said they trusted the president than his Republican challenger.

There are a number of possible explanations for this phenomenon. Some percentage of voters was surely uncomfortable with the notion of a recall election — such a rarity that Mr. Walker was only the third governor to face one in American history — and others were evidently turned off by the nasty turn in Wisconsin's otherwise genteel political tradition. Mr. Walker massively outspent his opponent, and outside groups poured millions more into the race on his behalf. Mr. Barrett was also likely weakened by a primary election fight less than a month ago.

But the most convincing evidence that there was a disconnect between national and Wisconsin politics was this: About 18 percent of those who voted to keep Mr. Walker also said they would vote for Mr. Obama, while just 8 percent of Mr. Barrett's voters support Mr. Romney. The New Republic's Alec MacGillis presented a compelling theory for the rationale of a Walker-Obama voter: a sense among independents that things are getting better and an aversion to rocking the boat.

Although Mr. Walker's effort to limit collective bargaining and benefits for public-sector unions was the genesis of the recall, he spent much of the campaign touting instead his economic record. Mr. MacGillis — a former Sun reporter — found much the same phenomenon in the crucial battleground state of Ohio, where Republican Gov. John Kasich's campaign narrative of job creation and economic growth sounds much more like President Obama's message of slow improvement than Mr. Romney's forecast of doom and gloom.

Labor unions, however, are clear losers in this fight. It's important to note that the reason Mr. Walker became the focus of so much ire from organized labor wasn't just that he was seeking pension and benefit concessions — the unions there accepted those — but that he was seeking to limit the right to collective bargaining altogether. The labor movement wanted to put Mr. Walker's scalp on the wall as a warning to lawmakers in other states, and it failed. Since Mr. Walker pushed through the limits on collective bargaining, membership in Wisconsin public employee unions has plummeted, meaning their influence may be permanently curtailed.

The fact that the unions were not able to rally a majority of Wisconsin voters to their side should not have been a surprise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 11.8 percent of American workers belong to unions, and the divide between public-sector union membership (37 percent) and private-sector membership (6.9 percent) is stark. Politicians across the ideological spectrum have shown themselves unwilling to ask for higher taxes or cuts to services in order to fund public-sector health and retirement plans that are far more valuable than what most of their constituents receive.

That's true in states with Republican governors, like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, but it's also true in Maryland. Even as he has protected collective bargaining rights, Gov.Martin O'Malleyhas pushed through pension reforms over union objections. In Baltimore City, as Democratic a jurisdiction as you can find, MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakeangered union officials by cutting police and fire pension benefits but paid no political price at the polls.

All this is happening at a time when middle-class wages are stagnant despite soaring corporate profits and executive pay. Pessimism is growing about the ability of workers to afford retirement and to provide a better future for their children. The need for a collective voice for labor is great, but fewer and fewer believe that America's unions, with their roots in a very different era, are the answer. That, not Scott Walker, is the great challenge the labor movement faces.

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