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Was the Wisconsin recall inevitable?

at 10:18 AM ET, 06/12/2012

One of the most damning things about the labor movement’s failed attempt to recall Gov. Scott Walker (R) a week ago is that it was an unforced error. Unions came at the king and missed.

But did they have a choice? Some national labor officials say they tried to dissuade Wisconsin unions and activists from going ahead with the recall campaign and simply could not.


Supporters of a recall effort against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sing a union solidarity song outside the State Capitol Building on June 5. (John Hart - AP)

It’s well known that President Obama’s campaign team was skeptical of the idea. Apparently many in labor were too.

“There’s this notion out there that unions are hierarchical,” said one labor official. “Labor has its own culture, and its extremely democratic.” If the national labor union had tried to stop the recall, added the source, “it would have been a bloodbath.”

Added a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees: “With apologies to the arm-chair quarterbacks in DC, we didn’t have the opportunity to run the passion of over 100,000 grassroots protesters through a DC focus group. Wisconsin was and remains a grassroots movement. Anyone who second guesses what happened doesn’t understand that crucial fact.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka hinted at that tension in a conference call with reporters last Wednesday, saying: “We didn’t decide on this recall. It was the workers in Wisconsin and the voters in Wisconsin who did.”

While that could be written off as post-election scapegoating, Trumka said something similar over a year ago. And about a month before the election, he was already lowering expectations.

The divide between national and state Democrats — and national and state labor officials — was apparent to anyone closely watching the race and stood in stark contrast to the fully unified effort behind Walker.

One way that lack of coordination — and confidence in the strategic smarts of the effort — played out was in Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s (D) fundraising and the cash collection on the Democratic side as a whole.

The labor-backed coalition We Are Ohio spent about $41.4 million to defeat an anti-collective bargaining law in that state last fall. In Wisconsin, pro-Barrett groups spent a far less (though still substantial) $17.9 million even as their opponent was spending vastly more. And that includes an expensive Democratic primary in which unions opposed Barrett.

But Wisconsin is a cheaper state in which to run television advertising than Ohio. And other unions — in particular AFSCME and the National Education Association — invested very heavily in the recall effort.

Democrats were not even able to shape the schedule of the recall, as activists involved wanted to start as soon as was legally possible.

United Wisconsin executive director Lynn Freeman told The Fix back in April that there was skepticism from Democrats and from labor, but that pushback could not stop the recall. Her group helped drive the petition-gathering effort.

“A lot of people said don’t do it, don’t recall the governor,” Freeman said. “But this whole thing from the beginning was grassroots. People who weren’t involved in politics maybe weren’t smart enough to know that they shouldn’t have done it, and they weren’t going to be told no.”

In the end, the passion of those hoping to shock the world by throwing out Walker didn’t match up with strategic challenges present in staging a recall election. The lesson? Always look before you leap.

 
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