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Organized labor stares down specter of possible recall loss

Dinesh Ramde / AP

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, right, talks with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at a Republican campaign office in Germantown, Wis., on Sunday, June 3, 2012.

 

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Organized labor is staring down the prospect of a bitter disappointment here on Tuesday, where union members are working furiously to unseat Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and replace him with a Democratic challenger.

Wisconsin has become the front line in the battle between unions and reform-minded Republicans, and organized labor arguably has more on the line in Tuesday's recall election than any other constituency.

Union members have spearheaded the effort to remove Walker from office and replace him with a Democratic challenger after the governor, who was elected in 2010, pushed a controversial bill through the state legislature stripping most public employee unions — which were birthed in Wisconsin — of their collective bargaining rights.

"I'm still angry," said Sandy Jacobs, an active member of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, who spent Sunday afternoon knocking on union members' doors in the Milwaukee neighborhood of Bayview. "[Walker]'s not representing middle class people; he's representing his own agenda, and I'm angry."

The stakes remains high in Wisconsin as voters plan to head to the polls Tuesday to vote in the recall election for Gov. Scott Walker.

Walker's bid to overhaul collective bargaining sparked weeks of protests in the state capitol, and dramatic national media coverage. A million Wisconsin voters signed the initial petition to force a recall election.

But the white-hot furor toward Walker has tempered somewhat over time. Some Wisconsinites wonder whether ending the governor's term early is premature. By all accounts, tomorrow's election will be a close one, and Walker has battled his way to a small advantage over Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in public polls.

"I’d be lying to you if I said it wouldn't be a disappointment, but that’s not going to stop us," said Lee Saunders, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employee, of the prospect of a Walker victory.

Roger Schneider / AP

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett serves eggs at a dairy breakfast in the Town of Rockland, Wis., on Sunday, June 3, 2012. Next to him is Republican Rep. Reid Ribble.

If Wisconsin voters retain the conservative governor, it would cap a series of political disappointments that have plagued organized labor in recent years.

Labor groups backed President Barack Obama heavily in 2008, but the stimulus sought by the White House shortly after his inauguration was far smaller than what union leaders had desired.

CPI: Wisconsin recall battle is state’s most expensive election

At the height of the battle for health care reform, labor voices were some of the loudest advocate for the so-called “public option,” a government-administered insurance plan available to consumers as a health care alternative. Democrats jettisoned that component to advance the bill over the finish line.

And most bitterly, the Employee Free Choice Act – a piece of legislation intended to enable organizing workforces into unions – was left for dead by the White House and Democrats in Congress after Republicans and business groups turned it into a toxic issue politically.

Leigh Ullman puts a yard sign in the lawn of a Tom Barrett supporter while knocking on doors Sunday in the Bayview neighborhood of Milwaukee.

“I think it’s stating the obvious that it’s a hard time to be a union member – or any worker,” said Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO’s political director.

The organized labor community and most Democrats have sought to downplay the import of any single election, let alone the recall in Wisconsin.

And the campaign here has, to a degree, shifted away from the initial controversy involving collective bargaining. Walker has campaigned on signs of job creation in the state, and his team has made the argument that a recall election isn't an appropriate way to resolve a policy dispute.

The Barrett campaign hasn't talked as much about collective bargaining, either; the Milwaukee mayor has instead emphasized the need to bring unity to Wisconsin, and has attacked Walker for his association with former aides who are facing a criminal corruption probe.

Former RNC Chairman, Michael Steele, former DNC Communications Director, Karen Finney, and the Washington Post's Dan Balz discuss the upcoming Wisconsin Gubernatorial recall election, and Gov.  Scott Walker's campaign strategy.

The divide between organized labor and the Republican Party isn't especially new, though. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney has made a point of condemning unions in his stump speeches, and other rising stars in the party, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, have seen their stock rise by doing battle with organized labor in their respective states.

The relationship between labor and the GOP is "not very good," at least when it comes to public employee unions, said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a native of Wisconsin.

"They’ve spent millions and millions of dollars of their rank and file trying to defeat our candidate. I would say, given that record, obviously things could be a whole lot better," Priebus said in an interview last week with NBCPolitics.com.

Republican Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, whose district includes plenty of union members, downplayed the notion that the GOP and unions are at war politically.

Mark Hertzberg / AP

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, speaks at a rally held by the Racine Tea Party PAC in Gorney Park in Caledonia, Wis., on Saturday, June 2, 2012. The rally was held in opposition to the recall election.

"In my mind, since I come from a union area, there is a difference between public and private sector unions," he said, adding that he thought public employee unions had "over-flexed their muscle" in seeking Walker's ouster.

To labor, exactly the opposite is the case. The recall, said Podhorzer, will show that it was Walker who "overreached." He said that Republicans had always been anti-labor, but the rhetoric has become especially "virulent" as of late.

"I think they are at war with unions. Everything they’re proposing to do is to gut the gains we’ve made for middle class families," said Saunders.

But union members on the ground in Wisconsin are already looking past Tuesday. They acknowledge the millions that Walker has spent on advertising to retain office might help him accomplish that goal.

Leigh Ullman, the president of Local 5011 Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, who was also knocking on doors in Bayview, said he would be "sad and disappointed" if voters retain Walker.

"I would have to redouble my efforts and work that much harder, especially for Obama in the fall," he said. "But I'm not prepared to that; I'm going to be celebrating on Wednesday."