Opposition to curbing collective bargaining rights for public workers drove tens of thousands of demonstrators to the Capitol last year, but people on both sides of the recall election might not remember that now.
Democrats are making the issue less of a priority in their campaign messaging. Instead, they're focusing on Gov. Scott Walker's leadership style and budget cuts rather than offering a forthright defense of unionism and collective bargaining. This tack frustrates more than a few union supporters, but only one union is throwing down the gauntlet.
The UW's Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA) has declined to endorse Democratic challenger and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who faces Walker in the June 5 recall election. The TAA also withheld its support from Democratic primary candidate Kathleen Falk on the grounds that she wouldn't commit to a firm stance against budget cuts and concessionary contract negotiations with state workers.
"Through his use of Act 10 against the workers in Milwaukee [Barrett] has shown that he is not deserving of support of unions in Wisconsin," says Dan Suárez, a member of the TAA and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UW-Madison. Barrett made use of Walker's collective bargaining restrictions in Act 10 to increase pension and health care contributions for workers employed by the city of Milwaukee. Barrett has said he took those steps to avoid layoffs of public workers.
Without an endorsement, the TAA won't expend any of its volunteer or financial resources on electing Barrett, although individual members are still free to contribute as they wish. The union will continue to mobilize its members to vote in the election.
"What this means for the TAA is that the conversation is going to shift back to how to meaningfully and effectively rebuild our membership [instead of wasting] time and money on supporting a candidate who doesn't care about us," says Suárez.
Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesman Graeme Zielinski bristles at the suggestion that Democrats aren't committed to defending organized labor. "The attack on collective bargaining was the original sin that sparked this movement," says Zielinksi. "Scott Walker's total dishonesty with the public on the matter of collective bargaining informs every inch of what we do going forward."
But a well-publicized memo (PDF) outlining the Democrats' messaging strategy for the recall election makes little mention of collective bargaining and lays out a range of alternative issues as the recall campaign's focus. In an interview for Mother Jones magazine, Zielinksi defended the strategy, stating, "Collective bargaining isn't moving people."
But even some of Barrett's supporters think minimizing the issue of collective bargaining is a bad idea. "I haven't heard any message from the Barrett campaign," says Dave Poklinkoski, president of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 2304 in Madison.
Poklinkoski is frustrated with what he describes as a lack of focus on the "real issues," which he attributes to a misguided attempt to move to the right rather than appeal to the Democratic base to drive voter turnout.
Others are critical of the amount of time and money union leaders are investing in electing a candidate with whom they have a chilly relationship. We Are Wisconsin, a PAC with strong ties to the Wisconsin labor movement, has been one of the largest single spenders on recall activity so far, buying over $10 million in ads during last summer's recalls and playing a substantial role in building a get-out-the-vote operation for Barrett.
"They need to put that money where it belongs, in reorganizing our union," says Mike Imbrogno, a shop steward and executive board member of AFSCME 171. Even though AFSCME leaders tried to keep Barrett from running in the first place, the state-level leadership now supports him, and the union is making a strong effort to turn out its members to vote for him.
Imbrogno maintains that it's foolish for unions to invest resources in candidates who don't support workers, a mistake he says AFSCME has made in the past. "We supported Jim Doyle when he ran on reducing the state workforce by 10,000 jobs, and we gave him money to do that. Why are we paying for them to lay us off and to furlough us?"
Despite the discontent, it's clear that defeating Walker is a top political priority for Wisconsin's unions and that an "anybody but Walker" sentiment is the basis for uniting behind Barrett.
"At this point, if Wisconsin had a state dog catcher who decided to run against Scott Walker we'd back him," said Poklinkoski. "Once we unseat [Walker], then we can work on holding [Barrett's] feet to the fire."
[Editor's note: This article was revised to note that the TAA is still mobilizing its members to vote in the recall election.]