Today’s Wisconsin gubernatorial recall is being touted as the second most important election to be held this year. While the gap between this race and the one that will determine who will take the presidential oath next January in terms of the consequences for the country is enormous, the pundits are actually not engaging in hype when they speak of the impact of the recall in these terms. The outcome will be treated as a harbinger, one way or the other, of the November election, and given the ability of the press to promote self-fulfilling prophecies that may turn out to be true. But before we get too caught up in the purely partisan consequences of Wisconsin, it should be pointed out that the real impact of this contest relates to the issue that started this tussle: the fight to curb the power of state worker unions.
Scott Walker is not facing a recall just because Wisconsin Democrats want another crack at defeating him after his 2010 victory. Walker became the man with the bull’s eye on his back because he took his campaign promises seriously and set out to do something that would fundamentally alter the imbalance in the relationship between the unions and the state. If Walker survives the union’s attempt to exact revenge for his successful clipping of their wings, then it will be a model for other governors and states to follow. That’s something that could halt the national trend by which states and municipalities have allowed exorbitant contracts and benefits to push them all to the brink of bankruptcy.
In terms of its impact on government budgets, the rise of public sector unionism is one of the most significant chapters in modern American political history. Coinciding with the enormous growth in government during the course of the 20th century, state worker unions won their right to employ collective bargaining tactics in the heyday of the New Deal-era Democratic political coalition and have since ruthlessly used them to expand wages and benefits to rates that have long since eclipsed those of the private sector. Free from the restraints of the market that brought some private industry unions back to earth and equipped with the power to bring vital government services to a standstill through strikes and slowdowns, state worker unions spent the last several decades on an unprecedented winning streak. Though many tried, few governors or mayors had the guts or the political juice to stand up to the unions. Even conservatives often bought peace and political safety by paying off the powerful leaders of the unions with lucrative deals that sacrificed the fiscal future.
It is this impossible situation that has brought not just the federal government but virtually every state and city to the edge of ruin in recent years. And it is the public’s revulsion against the taxes and spending required to sustain these contracts that engineered the Tea Party revolution of 2010 that brought Republicans like Walker to office. But Walker wasn’t satisfied with merely pledging to bring a halt to union giveaways. What he did was to promote and pass laws that altered the skewed playing field that had given the unions so much leverage against the state. At his behest, the Republican-controlled legislature passed laws that took away some collective bargaining rights from unions and also ended their ability to automatically deduct dues from state workers rather than having those funds come to them voluntarily. The result of these reforms is that the unions won’t be able to hold up Walker or his successors. Without the threat of union blackmail, Wisconsin now has a chance to put its fiscal house in order.
That’s why we should not worry so much about whether a Walker win will hurt President Obama’s chances of re-election (though it will) and ponder just how much the political landscape in states all around the country will be altered by his example. The defeat of the recall may mean that other governors now in office and still others who may be elected this year will gain the courage to stand up to their unions and pass similar reforms. By contrast, if Walker is defeated, you can bet no politician will repeat his courageous stand in the foreseeable future. If the stakes are high tonight it is because it is that outcome — one that will directly affect every state’s ability to balance its budget — that is hanging in the balance with the recall results.