What's In Store For Unions After Wis. Recall?

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was able to fend off a recall effort on Tuesday, defeating Democrat Tom Barrett to stay in office. The recall was backed by unions after Walker eliminated collective bargaining rights for most government employees. Robert Siegel talks with Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO about Tuesday's result in Wisconsin and what it might mean for unions in November.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, the lessons of the Wisconsin recall vote for organized labor. Joining me is Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff of the AFL-CIO. Welcome.

THEA LEE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And in the interests of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I and most of the people you hear on NPR are members of an AFL-CIO union, Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Labor went all on against Scott Walker, and he prevailed. What's the takeaway?

LEE: Well, there's no question it was a disappointing outcome for us. But at the end of the day, this is only the beginning of a long battle. And I think we did see Wisconsin voters and Wisconsin workers energized, excited, mobilized in an unprecedented way. And so I think, you know, the lessons are not entirely negative for labor.

SIEGEL: What does the Wisconsin result tell you when you think about the political landscape nationwide in the fall?

LEE: Well, I think it's going to be a pretty tough year and a bitter and divisive year. We see money playing a big role in the Wisconsin election - in a way that I think should be troubling to all Americans - that outside money poured into Wisconsin in unprecedented ways, big corporate donors and billionaires giving a lot of money to Scott Walker's campaign. And I think we do have to stop and wonder whether we want money to be so dominant in our elections and whether we want the fall to look like this recent election.

SIEGEL: Well, there's no reason not to expect it to look like this. That is, there's not going to be a change in the law, we think, between now and the fall. Does that mean that the labor movement and the Democratic Party are going to be outspent in the fall?

LEE: We'll, I think that's hard to say. I think that's a whole different question. This was a recall election in one state. And recall elections are always tough. And there's a lot of voters who just don't believe in recalls. They just think that they should only have been used in extraordinary circumstances. So I think, right off the bat, this was a real heavy lift.

But, certainly, I think our folks are going to have to work a lot harder than we are had hoped. We're going to have to make sure that we are mobilized and communicating and touching base with our members, with non-union workers as well. And we can't leave anything on the table in this election. There's no question about it.

SIEGEL: The Wisconsin exit poll actually put it at about 60 percent of voters saying that they thought that the recall - I'm elaborating on the answer - it's more for turning out crooks than it is for turning out people you disagree with. That's what regular elections are for. Was it an overreach? Was this a tactical error to have a recall election, if that many people believe that about recalls?

LEE: Well, you know, folks in Wisconsin were really angry. And this was a grassroots efforts. This was from the bottom up, not from the top down. Workers in Wisconsin and families in Wisconsin really were angry at Scott Walker. They gathered one million signatures to have a chance at turning Walker out of office. And I think that should be a wake-up call for Scott Walker and for other governors.

I know some folks are saying, well, these election results show that Republican governors can win by taking the tack that Scott Walker took. I don't think many governors around the country, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, would look at Scott Walker's last year and a half in office and wish they could change places with him.

SIEGEL: One piece of good news for the Democrats and for labor in Wisconsin was that while only one recall move succeeded, it was the one that changes the balance in the state Senate of Wisconsin.

LEE: That's a huge victory for the working families, that we took back control of the Senate. And that means that Governor Walker's agenda is going to be slowed down pretty dramatically. And I think, you know, if you look at Governor Walker, he spent $50 million to barely hold on to his job, and he lost control of the state Senate. So in that sense, it doesn't seem like a resounding victory for him.

SIEGEL: Is this a message, though, about the state of the labor movement today, that you're fighting a rearguard action, that people who've struggled hard for good benefits and public employment - far from being seen as a model by other people - are resented for having a good benefits?

LEE: There's no question these are tough economic times and tough political times. And I think that what we saw in Wisconsin is that the right wing is emboldened, and they see unions as the last bastion of strength for working people and for working families. And they recognize unions as a threat, so they're going after them, and so we are having to fight some rearguard actions we wish we didn't have to do.

SIEGEL: So the glass in Wisconsin for the AFL-CIO is a quarter full. Anything in there at all from your vantage point?

LEE: Oh, there's plenty of liquid in that glass, because I think what we did see was this energy over the last year and a half in Wisconsin that was unprecedented: people coming out, first of all, to sit in at the capitol and then to gather one million signatures, and then to fight a really heroic battle against long odds.

SIEGEL: Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO, thank you very much for talking with us.

LEE: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Thea Lee dropped by to give us the take from organized labor on Governor Walker's victory in the Wisconsin recall vote.

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