Where is the Wisconsin recall headed?

July 28, 2011

Wisconsin activist Aileen Paguio asks why Democratic candidates in the recall votes are silent about Scott Walker's law to strip the rights of public-sector workers.

INCUMBENT DEMOCRATIC state Sen. Dave Hansen decisively won reelection in Wisconsin July 19 in the first of nine votes that could see Republicans lose control of the state senate in the backlash over a law that guts collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers.

The recalls of Republican state senators--and a counter-effort to oust Democrats--were initiated in the aftermath of the month-long mobilization of Wisconsin unions and their supporters in February and March.

But most Democrats involved in recall elections have completely ignored the issue of reinstating collective bargaining, even though it is the unions who generated the activists going door-to-door to campaign for these candidates.

Mike Tate, chair of the Wisconsin state Democratic party, said in a press conference that only the media believe the elections are about collective bargaining.

As Jack Carver, on the Isthmus' Daily Page, wrote: "Democrats tacitly play into [Walker's] game. Instead of articulating how unions benefit the general population, they speak in the vaguest terms about the importance of preserving the rights of public workers."

Democratic state Sen. Dave Hansen won his recall election against a Republican challenger
Democratic state Sen. Dave Hansen won his recall election against a Republican challenger (Dave Hoefler)

The next votes will take place August 9 and 16, when six Republicans and two more Democratic senators face recall. If the Democrats pick up three seats, they will have a majority in the state senate.

THESE ELECTIONS are the culmination of efforts by organized labor to mobilize voters angry about Republican Gov. Scott Walker's law that eliminates meaningful bargaining rights for workers employed by state and local governments. And while Democratic operatives like Tate now shrug off labor's agenda, union members were key to gathering the petitions needed to trigger the recall elections, and have been central to get-out-the-vote efforts.

The Republicans also petitioned for the recall of all the Democratic senators on the claim that they "shirked their duty by fleeing the state"--a reference to the 14 Democratic senators who blocked action on anti-union legislation by relocating in Illinois. However, Republicans were only able to collect enough signatures for three recall votes of Democrats.

In a normal election year, it's difficult to gather the number of signatures needed to trigger a recall--a figure equivalent to 25 percent of the turnout in the previous election. The fact that nine senators are undergoing recall elections is unprecedented. Only one other senator has ever been recalled in the history of the state.

The activism around the election draws on the spirit of the mass protests in February and March. Just days after Walker announced his attack, hundreds of thousands of people from many different unions, public and private, and the supporters flocked to the Capitol to express their outrage. It was this show of working-class unity that gave the Democrats the courage to leave town for weeks in order to deny the Senate quorum required by state law to vote on fiscal matters.

Since Walker's anti-union law was originally packaged as part of a "budget repair bill," the gambit was able to stall the legislation. But to end the standoff, Wisconsin senate Republicans eventually took a separate vote on the measure, which recently went into effect after an unsuccessful court challenge against it.

Rather than mobilize more protests and actions to protest the law, Wisconsin Democrats and union leader funneled the energy of the protests into efforts to recall Republican senators. In so doing, they effectively abandoned any attempt to keep pressure on all elected officials--Republican and Democrat, senators and assembly members, and the governor--at the Capitol.

Their logic: If Democrats can regain control of the Senate, then at least they can block some of the legislation that the Republican are pushing through. The Republicans will retain control of the assembly, and Walker will remain in office, although he becomes eligible for a recall vote next year.

But by avoiding the issue of collective bargaining, the Democrats are allowing Walker to shape the debate. The governor wants people to believe the public-sector unions are a privileged class of people who have the support of the Democratic Party through political connections. This a harbinger of things to come.

In the meantime, the Republican legislature is pushing through as much of their right-wing agenda as possible while they still control both houses of the legislature and the governor's office.

In addition to passing a regressive budget that makes the poor and working class pay for deficits, the legislature has also passed the voter ID bill, which will result in disenfranchisement of poor, elderly, minorities and students who are typically more likely to vote Democratic. The legislature has also rammed through a redistricting plan that could ensure Republican majorities for years to come.

Many of these bills have the fingerprints of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization that has written "model legislation" like these measures that are being introduced around the country.

IF THE Democrats are able to win three or more additional seats in the Senate and gain a Senate majority, it would be a sign that the people of Wisconsin reject the Republican agenda. Yet even if union activists pull out victories for the Democrats, the party has proven many times over that it can't be counted on the act in the interest of working people.

The Democrats' anemic rhetoric during the recall campaign proves that they have not been changed by the rebellion under the Capitol dome, as so many thousands of the people of Wisconsin were. The Democrats are back to business as usual, which means not talking about raising revenue by raising taxes on corporations and the rich or restoring the rights of workers. In fact, it was the policies of the previous Democratic governor, Jim Doyle--including pay cuts and layoffs of state workers--that paved the way for Scott Walker's victory.

As of this writing, polling shows that the Democrats are likely to win two seats from the Republicans and retain another incumbent's seat. The other Democratic incumbent in northern Wisconsin faces a serious challenge from a Tea Party activist. The remaining races are at 50-50.

Since May, unions and the coalition they initiated, We Are Wisconsin, have organized people to knock on 200,000 doors and talk to 300,000 people by phone. This election, like most, will be decided by turnout.

But even if the Democrats prevail in the elections, it won't have anything like effect that the protests in February and March did. Then, the working people of Wisconsin provided a glimpse of the power that they can wield. The occupation of the Capitol forced the politicians--Republican and Democrat alike--to take notice. While the budget repair bill ultimately passed, it marked just the beginning battle in a longer class war.

The attacks will keep coming, and people will fight back again. If we learn from our experiences and get better organized and self-reliant--rather than count on those who would put on the brakes and channel efforts into electing Democrats--we could be victorious the next time.

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