Wisconsin and Beyond

How far will the backlash against union-busting go?  Walker's overreach has energized the unions' political programs and their appeal. 

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was only speaking truth when he called Scott Walker, Wisconsin's Republican governor, the labor movement's "Mobilizer of the Year." The backlash against Walker's successful (for now) drive to end collective bargaining for Wisconsin's public employees has been stunning in its scope, intensity, and (ongoing) duration.

The big political question is how far and how deep that backlash will go. My first guess is that it has produced a shift in public opinion that will help America's unions, though it will take a lot more than public sympathy to rebuild labor's power. My second guess is that it will help the Democratic Party across the industrial Midwest.

Before Wisconsin's epic battle, "who the hell knew what collective bargaining was?" asks Karen Nussbaum, who heads the AFL-CIO-affiliated organization Working America, which enrolls residents of working-class communities in union political programs. "It has way too many syllables."

But as Wisconsin's workers and their allies demonstrated day after day at the Capitol, and as the state's Democratic senators stayed away to forestall the vote, Americans' minds were concentrated on a right that certainly hadn't been in the news much for decades: the right of workers to join together to bargain with management. Within a few days of Walker's action, three national polls -- USA Today/Gallup, Wall Street Journal/NBC, and New York Times/CBS -- all showed that Americans opposed stripping public employees of their collective-bargaining rights, by roughly 60 percent to 30 percent margins.

Who knew? What with conservatives' continual demonization of public-employee unions, the support that Americans show for public employees' rights has to come as a surprise. Three factors, I believe, informed the public's judgment. The first was the demonstrations themselves, which put very human and sympathetic faces -- those of teachers, nurses, cops, and firefighters -- on Walker's targets. The second, which followed from the first, was that it's hard to believe that those teachers, nurses, cops, and firefighters, once you see them, are really the folks who are making out like bandits in our no-end-in-sight jobs recession.

And third, Americans aren't keen on the idea of taking away long-established rights, particularly when doing so fundamentally destabilizes the social balance of power that we take (or took) for granted. In the industrial (or post-industrial) Midwest, which was not only the stronghold for manufacturing unions but also the place where public-sector workers first won collective-bargaining rights, unions are a venerable yin to businesses' yang. Wiping them off the map, as Walker, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, and other Republicans are trying to do, is not only undemocratic but violates every precept of Burkean conservatism. Stripping Americans of their rights and uprooting the social order isn't high on the public's to-do list.

Which is why Walker, Kasich, and kindred Republican overreachers are in real trouble. Recent polls show that Walker's and Kasich's approval ratings have turned sharply negative. Moreover, as Trumka suggested, they have galvanized their opponents. In Wisconsin, the campaigns to recall Republican state senators who supported Walker's bill have out-fundraised and out-organized the Republicans' campaigns. In Ohio, Sherrod Brown, the progressive and pro-labor Democratic U.S. senator who looked to be facing a tough re-election race next year now enjoys sharply higher favorability ratings. President Barack Obama, who needs to win many Midwestern states if he's to be re-elected, would do well to follow Brown's lead and align himself more clearly with the cause of worker rights -- particularly because his economic policies don't look to hold much promise for the Midwest's economic prospects.

But if Walker's overreach leads to a Democratic comeback in the nation's heartland, will it do the same for unions? Clearly, it has energized the unions' political programs and their appeal: Working America has recruited 20,000 more members in Wisconsin since the Walker wars began. But successful mass mobilizations and even clout at the ballot box don't necessarily translate into growing membership at the workplace.

While the Wisconsin backlash could restore public employees' rights, the nation's anemic labor laws still make it almost impossible for private-sector workers to organize and win contracts. Restoring workers' rights in both the public and private sectors would require, just for starters, a mobilization that would dwarf Madison's in size, intensity, and duration -- and who knows what else? Labor may ultimately stanch its wounds in Wisconsin. Whether it can thrive again is still an open question. 

Harold Meyerson

Editor-at-large of The American Prospect and weekly columnist for the Washington Post