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AFL-CIO tries to downplay Wisconsin recall

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The AFL-CIO was heavily involved in the recall campaign against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). But on the day after Walker soundly defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D), the union’s president downplayed the results and distanced the national organization from the recall effort.

“We didn’t decide on this recall,” Richard Trumka told reporters on a conference call this afternoon. “It was the workers in Wisconsin and the voters in Wisconsin who did.”

Washington, DC - March, 1: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in his office which overlooks the White House on March, 01, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Trumka also repeatedly argued that the recall results had little larger siginficance for the labor movement, calling it an “an off-year special election.”

“Recalls are pretty unique and they’re pretty tough to win,” he said. “This isn’t the crystal ball that predicts the future. This is a very unique circumstance.”

He said he wished the recall election had focused on unions, but that in the end, it was more general: “This particular election wasn’t about collective bargaining in the past month. I wish it had been, but it wasn’t. It was about everything.”

Voters in Ohio repealed an anti-collective bargaining law by referendum, Trumka noted.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel echoed that assessment, telling The Fix that “it wasn’t really a vote just on the policy,” pointing to polls showing voters' discomfort with the idea of recall istelf.

Trumka has emphasized in the past that the recalls are Wisconsinites’ doing.

“This isn’t us going to them saying, ‘Maybe we ought to recall them.’ This is them saying to us, ‘We’re going to recall them,’” he said in March of 2011, before recall elections were held against six Republican state senators.

Eddie Vale, the spokesman for the labor super PAC Workers’ Voice and a former AFL-CIO staffer said on Twitter that Trumka was not distancing himself from the recall but merely “explaining that in all state races we in DC follow the decisions of the local members and officers.”

But the AFL-CIO has been heavily involved in the recalls and touted the effort as a warning to Republicans.

Trumka also emphasized Republicans’ vast spending advantage while dismissing the idea that labor’s grassroots operation is insufficient.

“They probably have the best program money can buy,” Trumka said of the GOP. “I think they haven’t caught up on the grassroots level yet and hopefully we’ll get better enough that they never will.”

Numerous volunteers and union members said the recall had generated levels of participation and turnout on a level they had never seen before. But national Republicans got into the state early and formed their own formidable ground-game operation.

Numerous unions behind the recall push argued that forcing Walker to spend so much money was a victory in itself and vowed to fight on.

“Make no mistake, the battle in Wisconsin will not end until workers in the Badger State win back their stolen right to a voice on the job,” said AFSCME President Gerald McEntee in a statement.

But unions in the state are not only weakened by the loss, they are facing dropping membership thanks to Walker’s reforms, which eliminated automatic dues collection and recertification for most public sector unions.

Labor officials argue that ongoing court cases against Act 10, the law that sparked the recalls, mean membership numbers are up in the air.

“We aren’t going to go away,” Marty Beil of the Wisconsin State Employees Union told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “We’re not going to pull a blanket over our head and pee in our pajamas.”

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