Recall Recap and the Road Ahead for Organized Labor

by Jim Cavanaugh


Collective Bargaining, Featured, Political Action, Uprising, Workers Rights

By Jim Cavanaugh

The results of the Wisconsin recall election were very similar to the first run of this match up in November 2010.  This means that the radical right agenda of the GOPs elected in 2010 has not turned off the voters.

Which begs the question, how can a government of the 1% receive so much support from the 99%?

In the case of the Wisconsin election, there’s been a lot of finger pointing and speculation post-election–Citizens United allowed Walker to overwhelm Barrett financially; Obama didn’t come to Wisconsin; unions didn’t force the collective bargaining issue front and center.  And so on.

Yet pre-election polling and Election Day exit polling showed that the vast majority of voters had taken their positions months before the serious campaigning began.  So, the money and the celebrities made little difference.  And people were already as informed on the issues as they wanted to be.

The fact is the radical right is very good at propaganda.  They have used race and cultural issues to hold their base and they have used anti-government rhetoric to expand that base to majority status.

Walker, even more so than in 2010, ran against Milwaukee and Madison.

His negative ads against Barrett were actually negative ads against the Mayor’s city, Milwaukee.  High unemployment, rising property taxes, crime, poverty.  This is the tried and true GOP race card because everybody knows there’s a large number of dark skinned people in Milwaukee.

Madison, of course, is the state capitol where privileged bureaucrats are over paid, over benefited, and under worked.  Walker did not dream up this argument.  Even before his 2010 election a UW professor had done a lot of on-the-ground research and found that ordinary Wisconsinites outside of Madison had a very negative view of this city of large government office buildings, a fairly high standard of living, and liberal politics.  Walker simply exploited an existing bias.

Exit polling showed Walker won the votes of a majority of non-college graduates and of way too many union households (ca. 37-38%) in both 2010 and 2012.  Meanwhile, college graduates—the ever shrinking middle class—and the very poor did not vote for Walker.

In other words, way too much of the working class voted for Walker.

Progressives might smugly shake their heads and ask how can these people vote against their own interests.  While some of them might simply be serious cultural conservatives or racists, probably a majority legitimately see themselves as actually voting in their own self interest.

People struggling to get by on $12-15 an hour have to watch every penny.  And the Republican message of small government and low taxes sells well every time a worker pays sales tax, property tax, or income tax.  And thanks in part to a gullible or lazy media which dutifully and uncritically repeats GOP propaganda about the eventual demise of Social Security and Medicare, struggling workers also have a jaundiced view of their payroll taxes.  The Republicans, with their expensive wars and tax giveaways for the wealthy, are certainly not the party of small government and fiscal responsibility, but they have sold their message well.

If progressives hope to regain governing power, they have to win back the the working class.  They might not be able to garner the support of the devoted racists and cultural conservatives, but they can and must win the loyalty of the others.

Obviously we need to ask them why they support a guy like Walker, and go from there.  However, I would suggest that we can get started right away with the issue of taxes, not promising tax cuts, but rather tax fairness.  At every level of government in the United States our tax structure is one of the most regressive in the world.

Obama, to his credit, has made some effort to address this by calling for the Buffet rule, which would lift taxes on millionaires, and an end to the Bush tax cuts for the super rich.  Meanwhile, on network TV Bill Clinton undermines this effort by giving the Republican argument that rolling back these tax cuts would hurt the economy.

As has often been their wont, the Democrats do not seem to have a coherent and consistent philosophy on matters of important public policy.  Nor do they appear to have a plan beyond the next election.

The Republicans clearly do.

Unions and other progressives must push the Democrats or some other vehicle to pursue a coherent and consistent pro-working class agenda, or we will continue to be governed by Walker types and to wring our hands over this state of affairs.

– Jim Cavanaugh is the recently-retired president of the South Central Federation of Labor.