Campaign Accelerates To Recall Wisconsin Governor

Wisconsin unionists say a copycat attack on Machinists at a crane-building company is one more reason to recall Governor Scott Walker. Petitioners have gathered 507,000 signatures ahead of a mid-January deadline, almost enough to force a recall vote. Photo: Karen Hickey, Wisconsin AFL-CIO.

Wisconsin unionists are saying that a copycat attack on 191 Machinists at a crane-building company is one more reason to recall Governor Scott Walker, as if more were needed.

Taking a cue from Walker’s legislation that decimated public unions in the state, Manitowoc Crane is demanding an open shop and an end to dues checkoff, in a plant that’s been union for at least 60 years.

“They want to Walkerize us,” says bargaining committeeman Gary Miller of Machinists Local 516, on strike since November 15.

Miller said the company first wanted workers to vote every year whether their union would continue to exist, then proposed that at the beginning of each month each worker could choose.

Christina Brey of the statewide teachers union called the language “almost identical” to Walker’s bill that touched off last winter’s rebellion that saw 100,000 march in Madison against the attack on bargaining rights.

Wisconsin unionists and thousands of others announced today they have gathered 507,000 signatures in four weeks in their drive to force Walker into a recall. They need 540,208 by mid-January.

The strike in Manitowoc is providing a flashpoint that’s further galvanizing supporters. A quickly organized rally on December 10 in the Lake Michigan town, heavily supported by the state AFL-CIO, drew 2,000, with buses sponsored by the statewide teachers union, AFSCME, and the Laborers.

“They know if it happens here it’s going to happen to everyone else,” Miller said.

Thus far there is no attempt to stop the out-of-state strikebreakers who are readying completed cranes for shipment.

VOLUNTEERS

Walker’s assault on union power has galvanized members and retirees to collect recall signatures at basketball and football games, in malls, on public sidewalks, and door to door. Because of the cold, a Wisconsin specialty is creating spaces where drivers can pull over and sign without getting out of their cars.

Petitioners number at least 20,000 and include far more than organized labor. Walker has “gored everybody’s ox,” says South Central Federation of Labor President Jim Cavanaugh.

Some are angry about the new voter ID law intended to suppress votes for Democrats. Farmers resent rules that will put Badgercare, the state’s medical insurance program, out of reach for many. Anyone with children in school sees the effects of $1.6 billion in cuts to education. Brey says 4,000 fewer adults are working in Wisconsin schools now than last year.

Because state aid to localities was cut, local governments have slashed staff and services. In October, Wisconsin was the only state to lose jobs, 9,700 of them.

John Matthews, executive director of the Madison teachers union, says people are steamed about Walker’s violation of the state’s ethos of “Wisconsin nice” and outraged by the betrayal of Wisconsin’s legacy of progressive legislation. Wisconsin was the first state to let public employees bargain collectively, for example.

Wisconsin firefighters gathered December 3 to kick off their own petition-gathering, though firefighters and police are exempt from Walker’s anti-union law.

President Mark Sanders of the Ohio firefighters union told the group that though most fire stations there are tuned to Fox News, last winter’s uprising in Wisconsin “lit a torch in Ohio and now we are here to pass it back to you.”

Ohio firefighters played point in voters’ massive turn-down of their own governor’s anti-collective bargaining bill, in November.

Matthews said police are enforcing the law against defacing petitions, a felony. One Walker backer who scribbled over a petition and drove off was arrested, as was another who tore up a recall sign.

DIY EFFORT

The organization driving the petition-gathering, United Wisconsin, began as a website put up by one Appleton resident, Michael Brown, during the February-March revolt.

Today the site lists 50 local offices. Retired educator Mary Rehwald is United Wisconsin’s coordinator in the town of Ashland near Lake Superior, population 8,000. She’s proud that by December 2 her 250 volunteers had already exceeded their 3,500-signature target for the area by 900 names.

The “100 percent volunteer effort” “has more energy in it that the Obama campaign did,” she said, raising its money through a donation can. “I identify this movement as part of the Occupy movement,” Rehwald said.

WHO WILL RUN?

Everyone wants to know who will run against Walker, in an election that will happen six weeks after signatures are verified. Though many Democratic challengers are interested, that question is up in the air.

Some pollsters say Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whom Walker defeated in 2010, has the best chance to beat him because of his name recognition. But Cavanaugh says, “I have detected no enthusiasm from union folks for a Barrett candidacy.”

Others say Barrett was a “wet dishrag” during the 2010 campaign, turned down invitations to meet with union members, and has been hard on public workers in Milwaukee unions.

At a Steelworkers legislative conference December 2, some activists directed questions to “Governor Erpenbach”—state senator Jon Erpenbach, who was spokesperson for the 14 senators who left the state in February to block Walker’s bill. Erpenbach, who has a near-flawless labor voting record, was point person in the senate for the state AFL-CIO’s universal health care legislation.

National unions have not yet entered the fray, though they are sure to buy ad time once the election period begins. State law allows unlimited spending by either side, and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity front group is likely to spend big.

Walker began his TV ads during a Packers game the night before the recall petition was to be launched, featuring a school board member from a rich county praising the governor for giving her the “tools” to deal with tough times.

Unionists believe that Walker is running scared. He does not appear in public in Madison, and when he travels in other parts of the state, he is met by picketers. His attempt to avoid demonstrators by moving the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the Capitol to 8:15 a.m. was unsuccessful. Later, protesters unfurled a giant red Recall banner from the top balcony.

In Manitowoc, Gary Miller says his bosses should be worried that Walker will be recalled. “He might not be here to help them,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #394, January 2012. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.