Gov. Scott Walker's victory in the Wisconsin recall election this week was no surprise to anyone but Big Labor. Unions were furious when Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature cut back their right to bargain on anything beyond wages. Democratic legislators fled the state for several weeks in 2011 in order to try to prevent a final vote from taking place. Demonstrators took over the state capitol, and when that didn't work, unions and left-leaning groups gathered signatures to force a recall vote.
The national Democratic Party initially saw what was happening in Wisconsin as a popular revolt against Republican excesses and a key to preventing Republicans from building on their success in the 2010 congressional and gubernatorial elections. But as time for the recall neared, even party hacks were nervous. Still, organized labor pressed on, sure that they could count on Democrats, young people, minorities, and -- especially -- union households to turn out in greater numbers and vote to kick out Walker.
But exit polls from Tuesday's election show that unions were wrong in most of their predictions. Their candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Burnett, won the votes of most Democrats (91 percent), young people (51 percent), and blacks (94 percent), but those voters were not as enthusiastic as Walker's base of Republicans, those over 30, and suburbanites and small-town voters. Turnout was historic for a governor's race in the state -- almost 60 percent -- but those committed to keeping Walker still exceeded those who wanted to give him the boot. Walker actually won a larger percentage of the vote in the recall election than he had initially in 2010.
Most devastating to the unions' ambitions, however, was that union households deserted labor's choice in droves. Nearly 4 in 10 union households voted to keep Walker in the governor's mansion, despite unprecedented pressure by union operatives who tried to get union members and their families to view Walker's efforts as a war on unions.
Big Labor failed because even some union members recognize that public employees' benefits are way out of line in their state. Until Walker's reform passed, many public employees in Wisconsin contributed little or nothing to their pension and health plans. Walker instituted reforms that included mandatory employee contributions to pension plans -- 5.8 percent in 2011 -- as well as forcing some public employees to share a larger, but hardly excessive, share of their health care premiums. But these demands seemed reasonable to most working men and women, who are used to making such contributions already, even union members.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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