Andy Manis / AP

In Wis. governor's race, labor settles for what it can get

Democratic nominee Mary Burke has stayed mostly quiet on union issues, despite its potency among organizers

BARABOO, WIS.—The rage against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was still palpable here on a recent clear September day at Fighting Bob Fest, an annual gathering of progressive activists.

Three years have passed since Walker, a Republican, championed legislation that curbed collective bargaining rights for public unions, sparking dramatic protests outside the state Capitol and an ultimately unsuccessful recall effort, but the memory still stung for many of those in attendance.

So when the Democratic nominee for governor, Mary Burke, who is looking to oust Walker in November, took the stage in front of these activists, many might have expected her to join in on the pile-on. But, when she gave her 15-minute stump speech, there was a nary a word on the much-reviled Act 10 or unions in general.

“It’s about better jobs, and better schools and a better Wisconsin,” Burke said at Sauk County Fairgrounds, summarizing her decidedly non-controversial campaign themes. “That’s what this race is about, and that’s why I’m running for governor.”

Burke instead focused her attacks on Walker on jobs and the economy.

“When Gov. Walker ran in 2010, he promised us 250,000 jobs, and what have we gotten? We are dead last in the Midwest in job growth,” she said. “I know we can do better than that, I know the people of Wisconsin know we can do better than that, but what we need is leadership.”

Burke went on to ding Walker on his jobs plan: “I’ve seen eighth-grade term papers with more thought put into them than that,” she quipped.

Throughout her campaign, Burke has avoided making labor a signature issue, despite its potency with rank-and-file activists. Although Burke said she supports restoring collective bargaining for public unions, she has not explicitly called for the repeal of Act 10 and has said that the increases in employee contribution to health and pension plans — also included in the legislation — are matters that should be left to the bargaining table.

Those careful positions are perhaps what prompted Burke’s challenger in the primary, state Rep. Brett Hulsey to say, “A progressive Democrat or union member who votes for my primary opponent is like a chicken who votes for Colonel Sanders.”

Union membership in the state dramatically declined after Act 10 passed, with some public unions, like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, seeing more than a 50 percent decline in dues-paying members. Walker said the measures helped save taxpayers $3 billion

But if labor organizers were initially reluctant to embrace a candidate who is not a union stalwart and furthermore, a former corporate executive at Trek Bicycle, a company started by her father, their desire to topple Walker seems to overpower those concerns.

“I am quite enthused with the fact that around labor issues she has been a good student if that’s the right term, and in that from when I first spoke to her prior to her announcing her campaign to today, she’s come a long way in understanding workers’ rights and the need for collective bargaining,” said Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, offering careful praise. “It’s clear to us in the labor movement while she doesn’t come from the house of labor, she certainly understands key components of labor.”

“The preliminary kind of cautiousness that labor had here in the beginning has pretty well been answered and you don’t hear too much criticism anymore,” he added. “Labor is fully invested in her campaign.”

Kim Kohlhaas, the president of the American Federation of Teachers in Wisconsin, said Burke was being pragmatic about what she could achieve and that it still stood in stark contrast to Walker’s positions.

“She’s been very realistic — we have a law in place and it’s not going to be a healthy environment to just come in and flip that law,” she said. “Mary Burke has very clearly multiple times publicly stated that she supports the right for employees to bargain collectively … That’s a big step we don’t currently have. It doesn’t mean we’re going to see eye to eye on everything.”

There’s evidence that Burke’s more tempered approach might be working. In the recall effort against Walker launched by union organizers and labor leaders in 2012, Act 10 was the central issue in Democrat Tom Barrett’s campaign. He lost.  

The latest polls shows Burke tied with Walker, both with 46 percent support among registered voters, with 5 percent undecided. The race could have national implications if Burke ultimately defeats Walker, who became a national conservative in the wake of the budget battles.

“[Mary Burke] has a very deliberate strategy of a being a vanilla democrat or a no-name Democrat. Her campaign platform is I’m not Scott Walker,” said Mordecai Lee, a professor of government at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Even though she hasn’t made Act 10 the center of her campaign, the labor unions are all in. They have nowhere else to go, and they’re in it for revenge. This is beyond rationality.”

The sentiment was corroborated by some of the grassroots activists at Fighting Bob Fest.

“I think Mary Burke is probably smart to stay away from strictly union issues and concentrate on jobs,” said Ron Standish, 68. “A lot of people aren’t overly sympathetic to unions but everyone understands not having a job, whether you’re pro-union or not.”

Mike Anstett is a former public school teacher from Springreen, Wisconsin, who took part in the protests in Madison.

“I’m grateful every day that I don’t have to teach under the regime that runs the state now,” he said.

And what does he think of Burke?

“She’s good,” he said. “But Scott Walker is so wrong, I’d vote for Lassie over him.”

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