Wis. Recall Results Strike A Blow To Labor

Correction June 7, 2012

An early version of this story misidentified the labor union run by Richard Trumka. He is president of the AFL-CIO, not AFSCME.

Public sector unions in Wisconsin targeted Republican Gov. Scott Walker and lost; he easily survived a recall vote. His victory leaves many asking the question: What's next for organized labor?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

We'll begin this program with the aftermath of Tuesday's recall election in Wisconsin. Public sector unions took on Republican Governor Scott Walker, and the governor won. Walker became the first U.S. governor to beat back a recall attempt. The unions had spent a lot time, money and political capital in Wisconsin.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports on what's next for organized labor.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker was on the ballot. So was Democrat Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee. The AFL-CIO wasn't on the ballot. But the day after the election, union leaders sounded just the way candidates do after a loss.

Here's Richard Trumka, the head of AFL-CIO, doing damage control on a conference call with reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

RICHARD TRUMKA: Let's not get too carried away, first of all, with what this means, because recalls are pretty unique and they're pretty tough to win. We knew that.

GLINTON: Trumka wanted to remind everyone that this was an uphill battle, that many Wisconsin voters were opposed to recalling a sitting governor over a policy disagreement. He says he's preparing for more attacks on collective bargaining in other states.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

TRUMKA: You'll see it in the Northeast. You'll see it in the Midwest. You'll see it in the South. But we'll continue to be there to stop that.

GLINTON: It was, though, a bitter loss for the unions. They spent millions and went all-out to mobilize a heavy turnout. Walker's victory likely means his push to curb public sector unions' collective bargaining rights will stand, a change which Walker says was necessary to protect to the financial health of the state and local governments.

Lee Adler teaches at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

LEE ADLER: I think it means that for now, the Republican message about public sector unions - that they need to be roped in - holds sway.

GLINTON: David Stebenne, a labor historian at the Ohio State University, agrees. He says the most important outcome of the Wisconsin fight has been to change the conversation about public sector unions.

DAVID STEBENNE: We're arguably in a similar position to where we were with private sector workers in America that were unionized in the late '50s or early '60s, which is that we're beginning a period of retrenchment in public sector unionism as a way of reducing the costs of public employees, and that cost has become burdensome on a lot of state and local governments. The interesting question is: How far does this go?

GLINTON: Stebenne says private sector union membership steadily declined over the past few decades, partly due to changes in attitude and legislation, such as right-to-work laws. He says the current weak economic recovery is producing a wedge.

STEBENNE: In an economy where there are relatively few secure jobs and where benefits have eroded - especially health care, pensions - a lot of public employees now seem excessively compensated to ordinary Americans, and that has eroded the attractiveness of unions in the public sector.

GLINTON: But it's not clear that what happened in Wisconsin is a fatal blow to public sector unions. Steve Malanga is with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. He says Wisconsin is a special case, and he doesn't see this as a movement that will catch fire all across the country.

STEVE MALANGA: What's far more likely to happen, in my opinion, is that you might see one or two other states roll back, on a limited basis, some collective bargaining rights. What's more likely is you will see the benefits - and particularly retirement and pensions - being modified to make them more affordable, without, essentially, the whole edifice changing.

GLINTON: Everyone seems to agree that this fight will play out for some time. The next battle: the November presidential election.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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