Wisconsin Race Signals Historic Shift In Power of Unions
Candidate Mary Burke Bases Her Challenge of GOP Gov. Scott Walker on Lack of Job Creation

By PETER NICHOLAS CONNECT
April 28, 2014 7:28 p.m. ET
Democrat Mary Burke in October. AP
EAU CLAIRE, Wis.—It was the most searing political fight in Wisconsin’s recent history. Yet, as Democrat Mary Burke campaigns for governor across the state, it is as if the battle that curbed union benefits, eroded labor’s clout and made Gov. Scott Walker a star within the Republican Party never happened.

Ms. Burke sticks to a bread-and-butter argument that job growth has faltered under Mr. Walker. She talks up her business credentials as a former executive at her family’s business, Trek Bicycle Corp. But Ms. Burke largely steers clear of the 2011 law championed by Mr. Walker that drew tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol in Madison while coming to define the governor’s tenure.

As Democrats see it, there is no realistic path to victory over Mr. Walker in November by building a campaign around restoring Wisconsin’s public-employee unions to their former status. That fight has been fought—and lost, many Democrats said. Mr. Walker won a recall election in 2012 that was largely a referendum on his tussles with the unions.

Underscoring the new political calculus in Wisconsin, Ms. Burke is waging a campaign that parts ways in important respects from one of the most reliable pieces of the Democratic coalition: organized labor. She doesn’t say she would repeal the law, called Act 10. Nor does she favor lifting the requirements that many public employees contribute more to health and pension benefits.

“I think it’s only reasonable,” said Ms. Burke, 54 years old, the leading candidate in the Democratic field. Instead, she said she would work to reinstate collective-bargaining rights that were rolled back.

It’s the only viable play, some analysts say, if she wants to peel away some of Mr. Walker’s supporters. A losing strategy for Ms. Burke would be to cast herself as an unwavering advocate for a weakened labor movement, they say.

“It’s a smart election strategy for Burke,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a University of Washington professor and author of the book, “What Unions No Longer Do.” “As unions decline in the eyes of many Americans, they’re seen as just another special interest—one that is disconnected from their own lives. The expectation that labor will come roaring back and win this election single-handedly is just not realistic.”

Act 10 abolished most collective-bargaining rights for public employees, permitting them only to negotiate cost-of-living pay increases. It also did away with automatic deductions for union dues. One result: The share of public workers who belong to unions has fallen, blunting union clout. The law carved out an exemption for police, firefighters and some transit workers.

Mr. Walker, in an interview, suggested Democrats are in an tough spot. Because the law has gained acceptance, the party must send two different messages: One to moderate voters who support Act 10, another to the core Democratic base that wants it abolished.”In this election, the problem that any of my opponents have is they can’t win over independent, swing, persuadable voters in the middle if they’re viewed as being aggressively acting to repeal Act 10,” he said. “Because most of those voters acknowledge it’s working.”

Organized labor is backing Ms. Burke, but many union leaders initially were uneasy with her because of her personal wealth—she is the daughter of Trek’sco-founder—and lack of roots in Democratic electoral politics. Ms. Burke served as commerce secretary under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and in 2012 won a seat on Madison’s school board, her only foray into elective politics. During that race, a state labor leader called her a “1 percenter,” referring to her wealth.

Over time, many labor leaders have concluded that they and Ms. Burke share a common goal: Ousting Mr. Walker. That would not only repudiate his drive against the unions but deprive him of a springboard for a 2016 presidential run, they maintain.

Some labor officials have even come to accept that Ms. Burke won’t renounce all of Mr. Walker’s signature legislation.

“In the recall, we made a big issue of Act 10 repeal, and that kind of blew up on us. We kind of learned from our lesson there,” said Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, whose membership, he said, has dropped more than 50% since Act 10 passed.

Other union officials said they’ve spent hours with Ms. Burke in private meetings and have grown more comfortable with her candidacy in the six months since she entered the race.

Afscme already has members in Wisconsin working to elect Ms. Burke, said Brian Weeks, national political director for the union. Union members “have no doubt she’ll do the right thing by them, and obviously the contrast with Scott Walker is night and day,” Mr. Weeks said.

A poll by Marquette University Law School last month showed Mr. Walker ahead of Ms. Burke 47% to 41%, a lead just within the poll’s margin of error. The Republican Governors Association says it has aired three TV ads attacking Ms. Burke. The ads emphasize her ties to Mr. Doyle, whose approval rating was in the 30s in the months before he left office, according to University of Wisconsin polling.

Ms. Burke has resources to fight back. She raised about $1.8 million in 2013, with about $400,000 coming from her own pocket, her campaign said. By year’s end she had about $1.3 million on hand. Mr. Walker ended the year with about $4.6 million on hand, state campaign records show.

Marquee talent has signed onto her campaign, including Jim Margolis, a media strategist who helped elect President Barack Obama.

On the trail, Ms. Burke keeps a tight focus on Mr. Walker’s job record. She tries to drive home the point that Wisconsin ranks ninth out of 10 Midwestern states in private-sector job growth, ahead of only Illinois. Mr. Walker had promised the state would create 250,000 new private-sector jobs by the end of his first term, but private employers have added about 105,000 nonfarm jobs so far.

Total nonfarm payrolls in Wisconsin grew by 3.7% from the start of Mr. Walker’s term through March, federal data show, below 5.4% growth in total U.S. nonfarm payrolls. Mr. Walker countered that the unemployment rate has dropped below 6% for the first time since 2008.

If the question, he said is, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago, the answer overwhelmingly for the vast majority in the state—whether they’re in the city or suburbs or out on the farm—is yes.”

Speaking at a party fundraiser in Milwaukee earlier in the month, Ms. Burke said she expects the race to get nastier. The 2011 effort to recall Mr. Walker drew millions of dollars from outside the state, and this year’s race is sure to do so, as well.

“I can tell you I am not intimidated,” Ms. Burke said. “I’m having fun. So my message to Scott Walker: Game on!”

Write to Peter Nicholas at peter.nicholas@wsj.com

 

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