Allied labor groups rallied more than 50,000 volunteers who knocked on 1.4 million doors and placed 1.8 million calls, according to figures from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The AFL-CIO deployed the best of its targeting and technical team to try to rally opposition against Walker. The weeks-long standoff at the Wisconsin state Capitol last year, which drew tens of thousands of union supporters and national attention, had invigorated the movement, too.
But even after the groups allied against Walker spent $18 million, it was insufficient to match the governor, whose campaign and supporters spent $47 million, according to figures from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that tracks political spending.
In interviews, union leaders rejected the idea that the outcome reflected any growing antipathy toward labor, or a diminished presence of unions.
The campaign “showed our ability to put boots on the ground,” said Gerald McEntee, the head of AFSCME.
The unions did have some success. The share of people from union households who voted rose from 26 percent in 2010 to 33 percent on Tuesday. Voters also narrowly ousted a Republican from the state Senate, according to preliminary results, apparently shifting the balance of power there.
Moreover, in Ohio, after Gov. John Kasich (R) approved a similar law to curtail collective-bargaining rights for state workers, voters there overwhelmingly overturned it in November.
“This was a defeat and a serious one for unions,” Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies unionism, said of the Wisconsin vote. “But it doesn’t say they’re a paper tiger. It says they’re vulnerable.”
Walker and his supporters used much of their financial advantage for television ads, inundating the airwaves with messages arguing that his moves against the unions were necessary. “The reforms are working,” one the spots broadcast statewide told viewers.
They also touted figures that showed that the state was facing a deficit of as much as $3.5 billion.
“This was a referendum on collective-bargaining rights, and the unions lost,” said Luke Hilgemann, director of Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin, an issues advocacy group that spent more than $5 million on the campaign. “The taxpayers of Wisconsin made it very clear that they did not support lavish pay and benefits for government workers.”