News Story

Walker Lesson: We Can Stand Up To Big Unions

On Tuesday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker won his statewide recall election 53 to 46 percent in a state that has been "blue" longer than Michigan in terms of voting for Democrats in presidential elections.

Many observers said it was the biggest loss government unions have ever experienced.

"It’s more than a big deal, it’s a huge deal,” said Vincent Vernuccio, Labor Policy Counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "It will embolden governors and legislators across the country. They'll know that they can stand up for taxpayers against special interests.

"They’ll understand that they might have to endure some pain, but they’ll know they can win in the end and go down in history as people who helped save their states."

Announcement of the recall election results marked the climax of nearly 16 months of a political war that pitted the unions against Walker and Wisconsin's conservative legislature. This fight began in the early months of 2011, when the unions, particularly government unions, reacted to reforms Walker and the legislature were putting in place.

Among the reforms that enraged the government unions was having state employees pay a 5.8 percent contribution into their pension plans and pay for 12 percent of their health care. In response, the unions shipped tens of thousands of protesters and activists into the Badger State. They tried to use a State Supreme Court race and Senate recalls as referendums against the reforms. Both efforts failed. Then the unions turned in enough signatures for Walker to face a recall election. Now they’ve lost in that effort as well.

Dennis Darnoi, a Farmington Hills Political Consultant, said he thinks government employee unions have failed to adjust to changing times.

"Ten to 15 years ago there was sort of the sense of a level of equality," Darnoi said. "In that economy there wasn't nearly as much impact on the budgets. Also, it seems like the unions have become more intractable. They used to make concessions where needed. Now they aren't doing that at all.

"It seems like on every issue the unions are resisting," Darnoi continued. "Then, invariably, a story comes out about top union brass making large salaries. Their attitude no longer seems to have anything to do with compromise. It's not about sharing in a solution — it's all about what they say they're entitled to."

Many voters now see view government unions as privileged partisans who look at taxpayers as an endless supply of money to fund their benefits and perks.

"Union salaries and benefits kept growing and growing,” said Inside Michigan Politics Editor Bill Ballenger. "They had the best of both worlds. This went on for a long time and it didn't seem to be much of an issue, except for with a few voices in the wilderness, like the Mackinac Center, which had long been saying that something was rotten in Denmark.

"So when there was finally a backlash, it caught a lot of people off guard,” Ballenger continued. "What finally seemed to do it was the recession in 2008. I still don't know how much it was the result of Conservative efforts or if it was just a case of it being a lagging indicator."

Ballenger said he doesn't buy the union argument that Walker only won because of the money he spent on the race.

"Look, Walker was no shrinking violet when it came to going out and raising money for his defense," Ballenger said. "But this is more than the result of him being well-funded. By the time the Walker recall election came, the unions in Wisconsin weren't even using the same arguments they'd originally used. Those arguments just weren't working anymore."

A year ago when the unions were attacking Walker's reforms they claimed he was taking away "fundamental American rights." The attacks changed to alleged cuts in education and other themes.

John Truscott, of Lansing-based Truscott Rossman, was communications director for former Michigan Governor John Engler in the 1990s.

"I don't think it would have been easy to see this coming back in the 1990s," said John Truscott, who was communications director for former Gov. John Engler and now runs a Lansing-based communications firm. "Government unions were a lot stronger back then. Now, I think they're fighting for their lives. They've been decimated. That's why they're so desperately trying to rally the troops.

“Another thing that has changed is that private sector union members aren't very sympathetic with the government unions," he said. "They see government unions as having had a lot of things just handed to them."

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.