The “re-election” of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin raises difficult questions about the health of democracy in the United States. It also offers new challenges to the members of what is left of the U.S. labor movement. The failed recall effort spotlights what will continue to be a problem in U.S. political life in the post-Citizens United era: finding a balance between legitimate political expression and the heavy thumb of money in local and national politics.
The Wisconsin vote suggests many reasons to be concerned about the fallout from Citizens United. At what point does the unfettered, anonymous flow of cash into unregulated “super PACs” present a terminal threat to the credibility of the democratic process? For all the talk of union muscle in Governor Walker’s unscheduled rematch with Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, by the time voters headed to the polls on June 5, recall forces had been outspent by a jaw-dropping $27 million. And much of the $31 million raised to keep Mr. Walker in office came from silent partners outside the state in an election many national plutocrats considered a must-win showdown with the remnants of organized labor.
Because the recall effort failed, Governor Walker will continue to put pressure on public sector unions in Wisconsin, and around the country other anti-union office holders will be emboldened to follow his lead. Barely 10 years after what may prove to have been the height of their public esteem, after hundreds of them gave their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, public sector union workers have become this political era’s “welfare queens”: a largely mythological creature invented to agitate party stalwarts or turn the heads of capricious independents. Despite repeated allegations about compensation packages that grossly exceed those found in the private sector, analysis of comparable public and private sector positions shows negligible differences in pay and benefits. But those comparisons may ultimately miss the point. The problem is not that public employees are compensated too generously, but rather that private sector workers are buckling under decades of income and benefits stagnation.
What makes the union death watch especially galling, in fact, is how quickly fellow workers, overcome by pension envy, have been persuaded to turn on their union brethren. Their outrage might better have been directed at the relentless assault on the middle class within America’s private sector, accelerated by the 2008 economic crisis and the breakdown in family wealth it caused.
Also disheartening has been the muted response of the church as this coordinated attack on public service unions, the last redoubt of organized labor, rolls on. The Catholic Church and the union movement stood together throughout much of the 20th century, propelled by landmark Catholic social teaching and accompanied by church leaders, from Cardinal James Gibbons to Msgr. George Higgins. Unions, often led by lay Catholics, have been vibrant expressions of both the spiritual and civic dimensions of Catholic social teaching. It is not an exaggeration to say this partnership effected profound improvements in the daily life of all Americans, raising standards of living and educational attainment and bringing decency and dignity to the workplace. Those advances have been gradually turned back, and they may fall away even further in this new century.
Middle-class and working-class people throughout the United States owe much to the 20th century union movement. It deserves better than to be served up as a scapegoat for a national economic crisis that has been cleverly exploited by forces eager to accelerate the demise of organized labor. President Obama sensed defeat and stayed out of Wisconsin, another example of his sometimes too-calculating leadership. The president should be mindful that a symbolic stand in a lost cause or two could prove beneficial over the long term, even when it risks political embarrassment. Mr. Obama played it safe, and now union members in Wisconsin properly feel betrayed.
But these public sector workers and others in unions around the country need to shake off the sting of this loss quickly. Organized labor must do a better job telling its story. It is losing in the newspapers; it is losing on cable; and it is losing in private conversations around the country. Union leadership might want to use this setback as an opportunity to reconsider its strategy. Perhaps less huckstering for the Democratic Party and more actual organizing might be worth considering before it is too late. Restoring historical ties to Catholic social activists and finding creative ways to connect with nonunion working people through new media also seem avenues worth exploring. A shroud is being carefully fitted for unionism in the United States; an uninspired union movement and feckless political leadership are helping thread its seams shut.