By Kathleen Foody
Gannett Wisconsin Media

Jim Wachsmuth belonged to a guild at a paper mill in Brokaw for 40 years and considers himself a “proud union man.”

But he voted for Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall election, and he wasn’t alone: exit polling by Edison Research showed 38 percent of union voters chose Walker.

There are benefits of union membership, in Wachsmuth’s view, including protection from the whims of a boss’s personal attitude about an employee.

But Wachsmuth, 67, said he can’t reconcile how much his health insurance coverage at the mill shrank over time while public employees in some communities contributed “next to nothing” for their health and pension benefits.

Walker defeated Democratic challenger Tom Barrett convincingly in the recall election sparked by his successful move to curtail collective bargaining powers for most union-represented public employees, and union votes were an important part of Walker’s win.

It’s a worrisome trend for unions when their own membership is voting for their most vociferous opponents. Wachsmuth doesn’t want unions to disappear from workplaces or politics but thinks their once-dominant authority is weakening.

“They’re in limbo,” Wachsmuth said.

That’s a fair description of where union members and labor leaders find themselves after Tuesday.

Wednesday’s headlines described Walker’s win as a crushing loss for unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Walker’s allies trumpeted his win as a sign of labor’s lack of political power.

Labor leaders tried to fend off the stigma, pointing to Walker’s multimillion dollars campaign fundraising advantage over Barrett, in addition to an onslaught of TV ads paid for by out-of-state political groups. Walker outspent Barrett 7-to-1 but barely moved the needle on his 2010 victory over the Milwaukee mayor.

The Democrats’ one win — in the 21st state Senate district, based on unofficial results — gave the party a majority in the chamber but is largely symbolic. The Legislature is out of session through the November elections, and Walker almost certainly will not call a special session before then. By the time the Legislature convenes again, the November elections will have shaken up the Senate’s composition again, and several districts up for grabs were redrawn this year by Republicans.

The changes to collective bargaining that sparked the recall effort are tied up in court challenges, though a federal judge struck down a ban on automatic deduction of dues from members’ paychecks earlier this year and spared organized labor from making individual requests for annual contributions that fund political activity and other expenses.

Those contributions, along with large membership numbers, once gave unions and their chosen candidates — overwhelmingly Democratic — immense political power.

Paul Secunda, a labor law professor at Marquette University, said unions’ strength lies in the number of people knocking on doors, handing out fliers and encouraging voter turnout, but membership nationwide shrank from 14.7 percent of all workers in 2001 to 13 percent by 2011.

In Wisconsin, there were 187,000 public union employees last year, the U.S. Labor Department reported, but major unions such as the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have lost droves of members. WEAC laid off 40 percent of its staff in August in anticipation of declining revenue, and a Wall Street Journal report last month said AFSCME has lost 54 percent of its Wisconsin membership since the collective bargaining changes, dropping from 62,818 to 28,745.

The political landscape also has changed dramatically with a Supreme Court decision allowing independent groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for their chosen causes or candidates

“It appears in this post-Citizens United environment we all live in, much political power is dispersed through very large PACs and other money transfers,” Secunda said.

During the recall campaign, Walker had months to collect unlimited dollars from individual contributors. Wisconsin law usually limits contributions to a candidate to $10,000 per person, but the target of a recall can raise unlimited amounts while opponents collect signatures in support of an election, a loophole Democrats are pushing to close.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign expects total spending on the gubernatorial recall to reach $75 million to $80 million, and an additional $44 million on the lieutenant governor and four Senate recall races.
Wisconsin labor leaders are quick to point to Walker’s fundraising advantage and help from independent organizations to explain Tuesday’s Democratic recall losses.

Charity Schmidt, co-president of the Teaching Assistants Association that represents University of Wisconsin graduate students, said unions can’t win the fundraising or paid advertising battle and must find other ways to communicate.

“We’ve spent how much in this year alone, and we don’t have much to show for that,” Schmidt, 34, said. “It reminds us our true power comes from organizing collectively, using direct action and our capacity to interrupt the work of those trying to infringe on our rights as workers.”

The still-open question is how far union membership totals could drop. Wisconsin unions are tight-lipped about any effects of the bargaining changes on active membership or the number of members contributing money from their paychecks to aid organized labor.

“We have come close to reaching a very dangerous precipice as to how much longer we remain relevant,” he said. “The only way we remain relevant is by having our memberships be educated, active and engaged.”

Leah Luke, a teacher at Mauston High School in rural Juneau County, said she expects membership in her local union and the state teachers union to level off in time, creating a foundation of “committed members.”

She’s less concerned that unions in Wisconsin or nationally could lose political power but wants to see workshops and other job-development tools preserved.

“My local union already had to make some tough decisions about what we could afford to fund,” Luke, 44, said. “We give out two scholarships every year for kids going into education, and we made the decision to save those and cut other expenses.”

Tuesday’s exit polls reported that 51 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of unions for public workers, but 52 percent supported changes to collective bargaining. Exit polls didn’t make a distinction between public and private union voters.

Luke thinks individual members have the best shot at increasing public support for public employee unions by talking to neighbors and working hard in the classroom.

“Teachers as a whole are soft-hearted people, but very resilient,” she said. “Just because you fail to reach a kid one year doesn’t mean you turn your back the next. You keep trying.”

Westphal said he’s not sure of the best approach for unions to improve public opinion. But he thinks it starts with more face-to-face conversations about what public employees do.

“If people hear our message once and the other side’s 10 times, our message gets pretty diluted,” he said. “Maybe personal contact changes that.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.