Wisconsin Supreme Court: A Referendum that Wasn’t

Big labor attempted to turn yesterday’s election for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court into a referendum on Governor Scott Walker’s budget policies, but, like much else in Wisconsin politics these days, the results remain unclear. This state court fight drew national attention because of its potential implications for the state’s new law, supported by Walker and Republicans in the legislature, barring collective bargaining for government employees.

Charles H. Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison told the New York Times Monday “This has really become a proxy battle for the governor’s positions and much less a fight about the court itself.”

Prosser, seen as a conservative, is expected to uphold Governor Walker’s union bill, while the liberal Kloppenburg has been heavily backed by the unions because she is expected to overturn it. The current court is split four to three in favor of conservatives, which makes this seat the deciding vote if the union case were to reach the state Supreme Court.

The morning after the polls closed there is no clear winner. Kloppenburg leads by a mere 224 votes 739,574 to Prosser’s 739,350 with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Turnout was high, but it is significant to note that, for all that it invested in this contest,  big labor was unable to secure a decisive win. It wasn’t for lack of trying.

Unions attempted a show of force across the country on April 4, staging hundreds of “We are 1” rallies. Their goal was to show solidarity but the outcome was lackluster at best. Redstate.com reported that despite the unions spending tens of thousands of dollars many of the rallies had only a fraction of the expected turnout.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka boldly predicted that the union’s demonstrations across the country would translate into electoral victory – starting yesterday in Wisconsin and catapulting Democrats to large wins in November 2012. On Tuesday he told a closed door Democratic House caucus meeting, “I firmly believe that if Democrats are to take back the House in 2012, it will be because they succeed in riding this wave, keeping that spark alive and closing the enthusiasm gap.” However, the unclear result from the Wisconsin Supreme Court election makes Trumka’s bluster ring hollow.

Nationally, unions are trying to portray themselves as more powerful than their numbers suggest—only 11.9 percent of all workers in America. They have been able to do so thanks to their millions of dollars of member dues that they direct toward electoral politics. As Larry Scanlon, political director of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said during the 2010 election,  “We’re the big dog.” He wasn’t kidding. AFSCME spent more than any other outside group during that election cycle—over $90 million, nearly all going to Democrats. That failed to prevent Republicans gaining control of Congress. And now in Wisconsin, their bark appears much worse than their bite.

Wisconsin is just the beginning. Across the country, state lawmakers are considering measures similar to Wisconsin’s. In some of those states, organized labor has mounted some—but much less boisterous—protests. As the New York Times noted, Governor Johns Kasich’s labor bill in Ohio is even stronger than Wisconsin’s. And the Los Angeles Times reports that over half the states are considering curbing government union perks.

Across the country, there is growing sentiment that government unions are going too far in protecting privileges that are far beyond. No matter the ultimate result in Wisconsin, Republicans elected on a limited government platform throughout the county will still have opportunities to enact legislation that is fairer to all workers and to taxpayers.

Policy makers who stand up for taxpayers should expect a union backlash, but not fear it. Union have already spent millions fighting battles across the country, depleting their war chests for the 2012 election cycle.  Many states are following Wisconsin’s lead and taking away the ability of government unions to force their members to pay dues. Without forced dues, union will have to look for new ways to bolster their coffers, including the portion they spend on politics, without any guarantee of success. If they stick to their guns, elected officials who stand up for taxpayers could mark 2012 as the year they turned back Big Labor’s onslaught.