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Wisconsin Recall: What's At Stake For Unions?


While voters in Wisconsin will see contestants for governor, lieutenant governor and four state senate seats on the ballot in Wisconsin tomorrow, the issue there is union rights, and a great deal of hinges on what happens, not just for unions in Wisconsin but around the country. Already, large numbers of Wisconsin public employees have dropped their union membership, some due to layoffs, but many more just decided to stop paying dues. The president of the Wisconsin Teachers Union told the Wall Street Journal that failure tomorrow, quote, "spells doom."

If you work in the public sector, how could what happens tomorrow in Wisconsin affect your life? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. With Kris Maher, reporter Douglas Belkin analyzed the stakes in Wisconsin for the Wall Street Journal, and he joins us now by phone from Chicago. And Doug Belkin, nice to have you with us.

DOUGLAS BELKIN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And this drop in public employee membership, that is due, I guess, as you cite in the article, to one change in the law that was put through in Wisconsin, that employers did no longer automatically collect union dues.

BELKIN: Yeah, that's a big piece of it. And, of course, the second part is that the unions have much less authority to get anything done for their members then.

CONAN: You cited one example of a small but treasured perk at a college where they got to leave an hour early on Fridays in the summertime. They cut that, and the union didn't do anything about it.

BELKIN: Yeah. They, you know, the big issue there is that the unions now don't have any teeth, so this has been a tremendous source of concern for the folks up there.

CONAN: So this is a spiral that would - you're - some of the people you talked to - continue if Tom Barrett, the Democrat, loses tomorrow.

BELKIN: What happens in Wisconsin tomorrow is going to be looked at by Republican governors around the country and governors who are dealing with big deficits. There's going to be - this is going to send a signal. And if Mr. Walker wins, then there's going to be probably more political courage from the Republican side to try to take back, claw back some of the benefits that unions - that public employee unions have enjoyed for a long time.

CONAN: And on the other hand, if the Democrat wins and the governor is recalled and the Democrats take control of the state senate as well, some of these rules could be changed.

BELKIN: Yeah, he's pledged that he would change them. And so for public employees in Wisconsin tomorrow, their paychecks will be impacted one way or the other.

CONAN: So as you look at this, the statement of doom is what they're risking. That doesn't seem too farfetched.

BELKIN: No. You know, this is likely to create a domino effect, certainly through the Midwest, but also in other states. You have Republican governors like Chris Christie, John Kasich, you know, these guys are looking at what's happening in Wisconsin. They're seeing how much of a fight the unions were able to put up and how effective they've been able to be in stopping what's happening. In Wisconsin, if they shut down, if they recall Governor Walker, that's a big victory for the unions. If they can't, that's a big victory for the conservative wing of the Republican Party or just the Republicans in general.

CONAN: Yet in Ohio, you mentioned Governor Kasich there, his even wider-ranging proposals to curb public employee unions was defeated.

BELKIN: Well, the big difference between what Mr. Walker did and what Mr. Kasich did was Mr. Kasich included police and fire in - when he stripped them - public employees of collective bargaining. And by doing that, you know, those two professions have a lot of sympathy in the public mind and they have strong unions, and they were able to create a referendum. And they won by, I think, 61 percent to 39 percent, so it wasn't close. So Governor Kasich got his nose bloodied pretty substantially last year on that when he overreached.

CONAN: Have the unions, the teachers and the other unions, whose jobs are affected in Wisconsin, have they approached the police and fire unions to say, if we lose tomorrow, you're next?

BELKIN: Oh, yeah. The police and fire have been on the front lines in the demonstrations there from the get-go. They realize that this isn't going to stop. You know, one of the interesting turns is that the unions have said that if Walker is not recalled, then Wisconsin will eventually be a right-to-work state. And Governor Walker has essentially not answered that question, leading most folks there to believe that if the legislature passes that - if they pass that and they'll sign it and Wisconsin could indeed become a right-to-work state down the line.

CONAN: As we've just seen happen elsewhere in the Midwest.

BELKIN: In Indiana, right.

CONAN: Yeah. So the stakes of this election are very high and, indeed, lots of money has poured in from outside, some for Tom Barrett and the Democrats. This is an ad - they had President Clinton - former President Clinton up there to campaign for Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, who's running for the Democrats in the recall election, and this is part of an ad that was running on the Internet.


PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: If you believe, if you believe in an economy of shared prosperity when times are good and shared sacrifice when they're not, then you don't want to break the unions. You want them at the negotiating table, and you trust them to know that arithmetic rules. Show up and vote for Tom Barrett on Tuesday.

CONAN: So break the unions. That's clearly what the Democrats are campaigning on?

BELKIN: Yes. Yes and no. The Democrats have - Mr. Barrett has not run specifically on a union platform. He's - this is - he said this is about jobs. Governor Walker said that he was going to create 250,000 jobs when he was elected. That number is far, far lower than that. It's been disputed. It's probably around 30,000 right now. The Democrats have said that Mr. Walker has been pushing a ideological agenda against women, against the environment and all sorts of things. So collective bargaining is actually not that high on the minds of most Wisconsin taxpayers. Only about 12 percent in recent polls say that that is the number one concern. Most folks are concerned about economy and about job creation.

CONAN: In the other side, the Walker campaign has been rather soft peddling this whole issue of union rights. Here's a sort of oblique reference to it in an ad run for Scott Walker.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Walker's reforms have saved over a billion dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Barrett wants to undo those reforms and raise taxes to pay for it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Backwards. Barrett.

CONAN: So reforms is about as explicit as they get?

BELKIN: Right. He's talking about lowering property taxes and cutting waste from government. That's been his message in forward Walker, backward Barrett. That's his refrain for a few weeks now.

CONAN: And the most recent polls, I guess, are from a Democratic pollster showing a tightening race. But do you expect this to be close?

BELKIN: This - listen, there were 2.1 million folks who voted in the gubernatorial election in 2010 against the - with these two men. They're supposed to 2.8 million folks. That's what the projections are now. There's going to be a lot of people going out to vote tomorrow. The polls are - Walker's ahead by a few points, but the margin error, not much more than the margin of error. I think it's probably going to be close. This is - the commercials have been about vote suppression. They've been very negative, so it's not clear, you know, if all those people that are projected are actually going to come out. It's been of anybody's guess, but I think it's likely that it's going to be a pretty close race.

CONAN: You say they've been about vote suppression. When you run negative ads against your opponent, it tends to suppress his vote, is what you're talking about?


CONAN: Yeah. OK. Now, let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation, not just from Wisconsin but from around the country, particularly those who work in the public sector. How might tomorrow's result in Wisconsin affect your life and your job? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Amber, and Amber is with us from Monroe in Michigan.

AMBER: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

AMBER: I am a public school teacher in Michigan, and we have a Republican legislature and a Republican governor who have been doing a lot of under the radar attacks, particularly on teachers, undermining our rights and our ability to negotiate and to bargain. And I very much look at the Wisconsin race as the potential for the Republicans to continue to demonize public sector employees, that somehow we're the problem, we're picking the pocket of the public, whereas, in reality, police, firefighters, teachers, garbage men were doing jobs that the public can't do for themselves.

CONAN: Well, obviously, somebody's got to teach the kids and somebody's got to be a cop, and a fireman, and police, and prison guards too.

AMBER: Right. Well, and the thing is we also have to be able to pay our mortgages and feed our families. We're not earning six-figure incomes. We don't have a high on the hog lifestyle. And if Governor Walker wins, then Republicans get to continue to write the public story that somehow we are treated too well and that we're the problem. And that doesn't - and that, to me, begs the question, if not us, who and what are you going to compensate people - or how are you going to take care of the people who take care of the children, who take care of the streets to keep you safe? It's a much, I think, broader political story about what's actually happening in our country and who does things in our country.

CONAN: Amber, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And, Doug...

AMBER: Yeah. Thank you.

BELKIN: Doug Belkin, that goes to another point you made in your piece in The Wall Street Journal, that of the perception of the unions.

Yeah, I mean, a lot of folks have - most folks don't have pensions now. Most of folks are paying a lot of money to their own health care plans if they're employed. They look at public sector employees and think they have a better deal than I have, and there's a resentment there. So this woman certainly makes a fair point. Other folks have pointed out well - is a $50,000 pension fair for a teacher? Is that overpaid, it is - you know, that's a lot of what this is about.

CONAN: We're talking with Doug Belkin, Wall Street Journal reporter. His piece in last week's Wall Street Journal called "Wisconsin Unions See Ranks Drop Ahead of Recall Votes," and he's with us on the phone from Chicago. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Jerry's on the line. Jerry's calling from Robbins, Tennessee.

JERRY: Yeah, thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JERRY: Well, we're people that work for a living, are going to lose job safety and suffer abuses if they break the unions.

CONAN: And are you a member of the union?

JERRY: Yes, I am. I'm a construction worker.

CONAN: And how would this manifest itself, do you think?

JERRY: All the job safety regulations that unions have worked so hard for over 100 years to get, to protect the worker so they can come back and work the next day, that'll all go out the window. All the health care benefits, everything else is going to be going away when there's no unions there to protect people because you can't negotiate with a millionaire or a billionaire employer when you're hurting for a job and get an honest...

CONAN: I hear what you say about health, you know, health care and pay and benefits. In terms of the safety, isn't a lot of that by state and federal regulation?

JERRY: OSHA and all the other organizations for job safety were brought about by the unions pushing for it.

CONAN: So you feel that if this campaign starts to gain momentum, you're going to see pushback not just on the state level, as in Wisconsin, but on the federal level as well.

JERRY: And on the individual level, yes. And it's going to be - they'll either put their regulators in there that don't regulate, like the guys in - the 29 miners up in West Virginia. Those mines were jury rigged for avoiding safety, and 29 people died.

CONAN: All right, Jerry. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

JERRY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Doug Belkin, is it fair to say that the pressure would increase at the federal level as well?

BELKIN: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, I think that's been - are you talking about, explicitly, on federal unions?

CONAN: Yeah, federal unions and also on federal regulations that protect workers in various places.

BELKIN: Yeah, there's been a decline there for a while, and I think it's, I mean, it's very difficult to get folks approved to the NLRB right now, National Labor Relations Board. So I think you'd probably see that continue.

CONAN: Let's see if we'd go next to - this is Greg, and Greg is with us from Rochester in Minnesota.

GREG: Hi. It's actually Rochester, Michigan.

CONAN: Oh, Michigan, excuse me. I'm sorry.

GREG: That's all right. I'm actually a high school science teacher, and I think it really will have a huge impact - and I am part of the union - on health care. And I was actually wondering what kind of ripple effects do you think this will have for other unions because I know, personally, in Michigan the UAW has a big part in union life. I know (unintelligible) and also with Michigan and what's going on in Wisconsin and what effects that'll have on private unions, more or less.

CONAN: Doug Belkin, what do you think?

BELKIN: You know, the private unions have been shrinking. They were - I think one in more than three workers were members of a private union in the '50s. That's been shrinking. It's now like one of 12. So there's no reason to think that that's not going to continue to drop. What's an issue here is public sector unions, which has been steady at around 35 percent since 1979. That's really the healthiest leg of the stool for the unions in the United States. So this is specifically, you know, an attack on the (unintelligible) and an attack on the healthiest part of that body.

CONAN: It's also an attack on the Democratic Party, is it not?

BELKIN: Indeed it is because the, you know, the automatic dues go from paychecks of public employees into the unions, and the unions generally support Democratic candidates. So this is deeply a political battle.

CONAN: Greg, thanks very much for the call.

GREG: Thank you.

CONAN: And finally Doug Belkin, Wisconsin, well, it's been a swing state roughly, and presidential elections, it's gone Democratic in recent years. As you look at the culture that has sprung up and what's happened there in the past, what, 15, 16 months or so, the place has changed.

BELKIN: Yeah, I spent a few hours in bars in Sheboygan the other day, and the bartenders all say that the - make sure to keep their political tone neutral because the fights are so frequent. You know, there are fights in family, there are friends from 50 years who have had parting of the ways. There's a million stories like that, and there's - the set in people's faces around this issue is angry.

CONAN: So the only thing a bartender can say these days is, how about those Packers?


BELKIN: How about the Packers, yeah.

CONAN: Well, Doug Belkin, thanks very much your time today. We appreciate it.

BELKIN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Doug Belkin, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He joined us by phone from Chicago. Tomorrow, guitar legend Buddy Guy will join us to talk about his memoir, "When I Left Home," speaking of Chicago. This TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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