Citizens United Allows Walker To Conquer

Just days into his new post as Wisconsin governor in January 2011, Scott Walker murmured his long-term strategy to billionaire businesswoman Diane Hendricks in a furtive discussion about union-destroying “right-to-work” laws that was captured on videotape.


On June 5, that divide-and-conquer formula—fueled by a previously unimaginable war chest of $58.7 million—would ultimately prove successful when he won a 53.2 to 46.2 percent victory in the recall election over Democrat Tom Barrett.


GOP Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleifisch, also facing recall, edged out Wisconsin Fire Fighters President Mahlon Mitchell, the dynamic African-American leader of an overwhelmingly white union, by a similar margin. It was a dismal night for labor activists and progressives in the state that was the birthplace of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the first state to recognize public-employee union rights, the first state where teaching assistants gained union rights, and the site of numerous other landmarks in unionism and progressive activism.


We Face A Grave Threat To Democracy


Walker’s financial edge of at least 5-1 was critical to his victory and an urgent warning about the endangered state of U.S. democracy following the Supreme Court’s immensely unpopular Citizens United decision. Various polls place 62 to 78 percent of Americans in opposition to the ruling’s fundamental finding that unregulated corporate funding of candidates is vital to “free speech.”


Walker’s extraordinary fundraising margin is more characteristic of a comfortably entrenched incumbent facing a token minor-league candidate in a safely-designed congressional district race rather than a major battle that attracted the highest level of voter turnout for a gubernatorial election in Wisconsin history.


Walker’s campaign had the resources—two-thirds of it drawn from outside Wisconsin—that allowed him to blanket the entire state with TV and radio ads for 225 days. The assault started in November with the then-undefeated Green Bay Packers’ closely-followed march to the playoffs (although Packer players, past and present, prominently associated themselves with the pro-public union movement). Walker’s top three donors—including Texas billionaire Bob Perry of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Diane Hendricks—gave $519,000 combined.


The advertising dollars were most effective in rural and suburban areas where labor has its weakest concentration of membership and was unable to mount strong on-the-ground efforts. The recall movement—and its candidates Tom Barrett and Mahlon Mitchell—lost by nearly 30 points among rural voters, with Walker taking 60 out of 72 counties.


Viewed in the context of Walker’s funding advantage, the 46.2 percent vote against Walker, in my view, should properly be viewed as a significant achievement. The new electoral terrain shaped by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision is now far more unfavorable to labor and progressives than in 2008, when labor was already outspent 15-1, according to the Center on Responsive Politics.


Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont explained how Citizens United had distorted politics in 2012: “So far this year, 26 billionaires have donated more than $61 million to super PACs….” That didn’t include “about $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has said that he is willing to spend to defeat President Obama or the $400 million that the Koch brothers have pledged to spend during the 2012 election season.”


Ed Garvey, former director of the NFL Players Association, labor attorney, and Democratic candidate for governor, is forthright about the virtually unlimited funding permitted from corporate sources. “A realistic view is that electoral democracy is over…. I don’t think anyone can win with a Democratic Party label” without the same level of name recognition someone like President Obama already enjoys.


The June 5 emphatic statement that big money rules will likely have contradictory results among Democrats in Wisconsin as it threatens to interrupt Democratic legislators’ 40-year embrace of minimizing corporate taxes as the primary task of those in government. As Democratic Rep. Fred Clark declared in an emblematic moment about a Walker policy, “That’s not a jobs plan, that’s a corporate profit plan.”


Clark’s comment marked a long-overdue rupture with the bipartisan consensus on corporate tax breaks of the past four decades. Like Republicans, Democrats have generally been willing to place a healthy “business climate” as the central goal of government, stressing corporate welfare far above the common good. Despite billions in tax cuts designed to retain factory jobs, the outward torrent of manufacturing jobs has been constant: Milwaukee has lost 80 percent of its manufacturing since 1977.


However, where Wisconsin Democrats are not reduced to total irrelevance by their funding disadvantage and a blatantly biased GOP-designed redistricting plan, some Democrats may become more craven in their adoption of neo-liberalism as a means of attracting corporate funding. This pattern is certain to become more pronounced nationally as well.


At the same time, the central importance of corporate money in the June 5 outcome is likely to feed the growing recognition that democracy itself is threatened and, further, that any genuinely progressive reforms for single-payer healthcare, the offshoring of U.S. jobs, or promoting safe, clean energy sources are blocked by the increasing dominance of corporate campaign funding.


However, there is growing momentum among progressive movements for repealing Citizens United, rejecting the notion of “corporate personhood” and for the replacement of private campaign funding with full public funding, as advanced by the Public Campaign organization in a handful of states. Progressives like Wisconsin Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin, seeking a vacant Senate seat, and long-time media activist Norman Solomon, running for Congress in California as a Democrat, will be championing these views and fighting to implement them.


Secessionist Ruling


The front-line right-wing players backing WalkerTexas tycoon Robert Perry of “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” infamy and Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks, known for her record of avoiding both individual and corporate state taxes despite her wealth—present a cast of characters with right-wing views. As Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer stressed, these Walker supporters are “outside the Wall Street/Fortune 500 establishment.”


There is no question about the active role of the Kochs and their circle of extreme Rightists. But Walker was also fully supported by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the official voice of the state’s corporate class. While aligned with the Kochs, Perry, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, Walker most fundamentally reflects the dominant direction of the ruling class, not merely extreme-right billionaires. In choosing this course, Walker reflected the increasingly prevalent “secessionist” attitude among CEOs who envision their future workforces—and much of their markets—as located abroad instead of in U.S. communities and who are unwilling to absorb the costs needed to boost domestic spending power via family-sustaining wages or to insure the provision of quality education and healthcare to American workers. Why should CEOs pour tax money into public goods in the U.S. when they seek to maximize immediate profits and invest them largely in low-wage, repressive nations? As globalization enthusiast Thomas Friedman of the NY Times admitted, “In today’s flatter world, many key U.S. companies now make most of their products abroad and can increasingly recruit the best talent in the world without ever hiring another American.”


General Electric, which recently moved the headquarters of its medical equipment division from Waukesha, Wisconsin to Beijing, China, embodies this trend. GE has avoided paying any federal income taxes over the past 5 years and has continued to slash its U.S. workforce by 32,000 jobs, from 165,000 to 133,000 over the 2004-2010 period, with many going to China and Mexico.


In the past, GE—like most leading corporations—promoted a kind of “social contract” between itself, its workers, and society. The “social contract” meant that corporations traded union recognition, high wages, and an enlarged domestic market for labor enforcing workplace discipline and holding back from questioning investment decisions, while paying taxes and taking an active (but authoritarian) role in shaping institutions to insure a well-educated and healthy workforce, along with social stability.


In 1962, GE’s employee benefits manager wrote, “Maximizing employer security is a prime company goal. The employee who can plan his economic future with reasonable certainty is an employer’s most productive asset.” Contrast that quaint attitude with the ruthless credo of Jack Welch, GE’s CEO from 1981 to 2001, who showed his disregard for employee loyalty when he declared, “Ideally you’d have every plant you own on a barge.” Jeffrey Immelt, current CEO of GE and chair of Obama’s Presidential Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, is clearly adopting the Welch path. GE—despite its long tradition in actively setting major public policy, its large medical-equipment division, and its still-substantial U.S. workforce of more than 130,000—avoided taking any stance on the 2010 Affordable Care Act, according to Chris Townsend, the political director of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers.


Corporations’ fast-disappearing sense of social responsibility and willingness to support schools, technical colleges, universities, and health care—over 60 percent of corporations with $100 million or more in revenue pay no state taxes—was expressed directly in the Walker budget.


The very sobering conclusion with corporations abandoning the notion of long-term investments in public institutions is that there is much less room to strike a compromise with Corporate America.


Recall Choice A Matter Of Momentum


Based on my interviews with key leaders, the Walker recall strategy emerged almost like a natural avalanche—without clear strategic discussion—as the response of rank and file activists’ frustration with the legislative process and their eagerness to expel Walker from office.


Essentially, labor lacked other clear and exciting options to continue expressing the pent-up rage against Walker once he had passed his anti-labor legislation. Under pressure from a frustrated rank-and-file, major Wisconsin unions wound up opting for a high-stakes recall strategy that has succeeded just twice in  throwing out governors.


The choice of the electoral route was not the result of top-down pressure from labor bureaucrats seeking to channel mass discontent into safe and conventional electoral outlets. But what occurred in Wisconsin was decidedly not the all-too-familiar scenario of cautious labor bureaucrats issuing directives to their members to shut down disruptive street demonstrations and calling on them to return to the safe, predictable channel of support for neo-liberal Democrats.


In particular, some left observers of the struggle were disappointed that the general strike contemplated by the socialist-led South Central Federation of Labor (the official AFL-CIO affiliate in the Madison area) was not attempted. But the consensus among experienced left-wing labor leaders was that the concept of a general strike was both outside the experience of most workers—whether in Madison alone or statewide—and an attempt would leave the most energetic activists vulnerable to severe discipline.


American Federation of Teachers Local 212 President Michael Rosen, a long-time militant in radical union caucuses before losing a string of factory jobs and then heading into academia, is known as a scrappy, tenacious leader. But his assessment was unambiguous: “The idea of a general strike was pure fantasy.”


Former Wisconsin AFL-CIO President David Newby, at least on one occasion quietly urged union members to consider a plant occupation in response to a shutdown, concluded that a general strike was not within reach. “The working people I spoke to were not enthused about the idea,” reported Newby. “It was just not within their experience and they didn’t see why, if Walker wasn’t convinced by 150,000 gathered at the Capitol, that he would be frightened by a general strike.”


With Walker and the Republicans (with one exception) so committed to a frontal assault on labor, public services, and Wisconsin’s democratic traditions, there was a mass impulse toward using Wisconsin’s unique recall procedure. The revulsion felt toward Walker and the Republicans was extremely strong and his polling numbers reflected weakness, so activists never really held a thorough discussion of the strategy. “I just can’t recall any meeting where key leaders of various constituencies were brought together to discuss this,” recalls Frank Emspak, labor historian emeritus and director of the Workers Independent News radio.


Another alternative strategy, initially worked on by the labor-led coalition We Are Wisconsin, would have stressed the development of local chapters to fight the impact of Walker’s wholesale cutbacks in public education, healthcare, and other vital services, capped off with $1.6 billion in new tax breaks for corporations and the rich over the next decade. Bruce Colburn, a highly-respected SEIU vice president in Wisconsin, said that after the passage of Act 10, labor hoped to both wage ongoing fights over budget issues in Madison and create a network of local committees working on education and other issues.


However, the Republicans had overwhelming majorities in both houses, guaranteeing that every effort to soften the impact of Walker’s budget on children, the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and the environment world be shot down along party lines. “One factor was that the budget fight was going on and we wanted to engage, recalled Bruce Colburn, a vice president of the SEIU in Wisconsin. “We had hoped for a much larger movement,” said Colburn. “There were a fair number of hearings and motion against Walker’s proposals was mobilized.” But the actions at the hearings failed to re-capture anything like the numbers and enthusiasm of the six-week siege of the Capital.


Efforts to build localized movements around the state against Walker budget cuts in public education and other public services—after initially encouraging results—eventually fizzled. “There was not a large level of turnout at the school level—we weren’t able to build on this because the hits would take longer to go into effect.”


Where some observers criticize the shift from protest at the Capitol into electoral politics as a bureaucrat-directed turn away from insurgency, radical labor historian Paul Buhle (co-editor of It Started in Wisconsin) believes it was part of the bottom-up insurgency. “In my view, the impulse came especially from teachers and they forced it upon the Democratic Party,” said Buhle. “It was the result of mass mobilizations…. There was a lack of a clear-cut Left alternative, so the impulse for the recall came mainly from teachers and they forced it upon the Democratic Party.” 


Lining up the commitment of a progressive and populist opponent to Walker should have been a top priority before adopting the recall strategy. Building up a statewide network of activists who would meet with local groups and local newspaper editorial boards was another essential step. Assuring a strong flow of finances was also vital. But none of these crucial steps was completed before the recall avalanche  started to gain momentum:



·       A strongly progressive and popular candidate had not been lined up


·       Local activism in support of the recall—once the signatures were gathered—seems to have been spotty, with little effective outreach to moderate or Republican areas


·       Little effort seems to have been made to influence media coverage or editorial positions


The Democratic National Committee made almost no effort to raise funds for the recall effort and, in fact, refused to increase its normal allocation to Wisconsin. The distance adopted by top Democrats was exemplified by President Obama’s reluctance to offer support in 2011, an unhelpful comment by spokesperson Jay Carney suggesting that workers should make more sacrifices, and Obama bypassing Wisconsin for a trip to nearby Minneapolis just days before the June 5 vote.


An early favorite, Russ Feingold, a strong progressive populist on most issues who had served the state for 18 years, bowed out early. Finally, former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk, an environmental attorney, stepped forward and began a campaign against Walker. Eventually, in March, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett—who had compiled a neo-liberal record as mayor (e.g., siding with the Metro Association of Commerce in opposition to mandating that employers provide sick days for all employees in the city, avoiding critical comment on Tower Automotive’s shift of 500 jobs to Mexico, doling out tax breaks to highly-profitable firms like Manpower and Harley-Davidson, etc.—stepped forward.


The Labor movement and its alliances, like We Are Wisconsin, organized voters effectively for June 5—especially in labor strongholds like Madison, Milwaukee, and Racine, where labor won back a Senate seat to reclaim the Senate majority. Wisconsin Citizen Action, African-American ministers, and the immigrant-rights-group Voces de la Frontera were all important in reaching out in face-to-face efforts to build the anti-Walker vote.


According to a Hart Research poll of union members for the AFL-CIO, 85 percent of public-sector union members voted for Barrett, 15 percent for Walker. Private-sector union members voted 69 to 31 for Barrett (for a combined union member tally of 75 to 25 percent split). However, labor was apparently utterly unprepared to reach out to and involve the spouses and adult children of union members: voters from households with a union member—who made up 32 percent of the electorate, according to the exit polls—cast a significantly lower 62 percent of their ballots for Barrett (that compared to 39 percent for the Democrats from households with no union member).


Turnout in wealthy Republican counties around Milwaukee was in the 73 percent range. Walker won rural voters—who make up roughly 25 to 33 percent of the state vote—by nearly 30 points. Walker won 60 of 72 counties, including 10 of the poorest in the state.


However, the timing of the recall—outside the control of the movement—resulted in a limited ability to mobilize young voters because most Wisconsin universities had concluded their semesters several weeks earlier. At Lawrence University, one of the few schools still in session, the vote was overwhelmingly anti-Walker. But generally, as Markos Moulitzas noted on Daily Kos, “young people didn’t turn out. Only 16 percent of the electorate was 18-29, compared to 22 percent  in 2008.”


What Is To Be Done?


In some respects, the Wisconsin labor insurgency led to an unwinnable showdown in the electoral arena as the avalanche of support for recalling Walker swept aside essential preparations. But these preparations were lacking for decades. Apart from the recall-specific requirements listed above, here are some crucial ways in which labor was unprepared.


  • Labor, particularly public unions, had failed since the early 1990s to launch a massive TV and radio campaign to educate the general public (and their members) about the unproductive, pro-corporate slant of the tax system that resulted in tax cuts while jobs kept exiting the state. 
  • Labor and its allies failed to formulate a program for economic and social rights that would extend democracy and concretely improve people’s lives, offering an alternative to the policies of Walker. 
  • Labor neglected to remind and teach their members that their essential power is their control over the flow of production, not waiting for a grievance to be resolved or the election of this or that candidate.
  • Labor failed to link up with progressives across the state to forge a strong network for constant communication to members, forming electoral alliances, and engaging in joint actions like those that took place in 20 cities on the same time. But it appears that strong alliances did not persist throughout the state after the petition-gathering was completed. 


As Corporate America intensifies its attacks on working people’s economic and democratic rights, overcoming these past failures will become all the more urgent. If labor can begin to reorganize based on members’ workplace power, solidarity with other unions and progressive groups, and join in the fight against corporate domination of elections, it can play—as Wisconsin’s best moments suggest—a crucial role in converting majority opinion into public policy. 


Roger Bybee has written several articles for Z on the Wisconsin labor rebellion and contributed to It Started in Wisconsin