In Wisconsin, US progressives have suffered a setback this week, with the defeat of an attempt to “recall” Republican governor Scott Walker, following a concerted campaign by a large coalition of trade unions, activists and community groups to replace him with a Democratic governor.

The recall attempt came after Walker had attempted to roll back a whole range of workers’ and trade unions’ conditions for public-sector employees. The move had prompted a mass movement, which saw a weeks-long occupation of the state’s capital building in Madison, and the collection of nearly a million signatures to trigger the recall.

The success of the movement had given progressives high hopes that Walker could be recalled and his program repudiated. However, Walker beat the recall attempt by a comfortable margin 1.3 million votes (53%) to 1.15 million (46%) for the challenger, Democrat Tom Barrett. The gubernatorial result had very little good news for the left in it. Walker’s 7% margin represents an increase on his 6% margin in the 2010 elections, and the total votes for Barrett weren’t much more than the signatures gathered for the recall trigger.

Thirty six percent of union members voted for Walker; 17% of those who voted for Walker voted for Obama in 2008. And while Barrett managed to win a majority of the 350,000 or so voters who hadn’t turned out for the 2010 elections, he couldn’t get his base out to the same degree as the Republicans.

The Right has, unsurprisingly, taken immense comfort from the result, arguing that it’s a decisive repudiation of the Labor agenda — which is arguable — and that it puts Wisconsin back into the swing state category, which is a stretch. Obama won Wisconsin by about 16% in 2008, and while he isn’t likely to repeat that margin, he’s polling ahead by a comfortable 6%, and has been right throughout the recall drama. Democrats remain confident that the extra half-million votes who only come out for Presidential elections will take Obama across the line.

The “X” factor in the pack is money. The Right outspent the Left by a massive 8:1 margin, with vast amounts of money coming in from interstate. The extra 300,000 votes that kept Walker in power cost a motza — he raised $30 million, 70% of it from out of state, while Barrett raised $4 million, three-quarters of it from in-state. That was just direct donations. There was another $30 million in soft money, and Walker gained the bulk of that.

That certainly shows that huge amounts of money can shift the vote — but it also shows just how much is required to beat a popular movement. Come the November election, with hundreds of contests, and a huge Democrat money machine, the Republicans would have to pull in money from the moon to replicate the result.

But above all, the result is skewed because the Democrats, and the national Labour movement/bureaucracy, had already decided that the contest was most likely lost, and made every effort not to be associated with it. Obama didn’t visit the state once during the election campaign, and gave a distant message of support on the eve of the election. Whether that was a wise move for November or centrist pusillanimity at its worst depends on your politics — but there’s no way of knowing what effect there might have been had Obama made a sweep through, and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL, CIO) put their shoulder more firmly to the wheel.

For the Left there was one silver lining — five Republican state senators had also been recalled. Four were re-elected, one wasn’t — and that is sufficient to cost the Republicans control of the state house, and throw a potential roadblock over many of Walker’s plans that prompted the recall in the first place. However, the victory was by no more than 500 votes out of 70,000, and the result may be challenged.

The Wisconsin recall has been called “the second most important election of 2012” and there’s no shortage of interpretation flying around the tubes — some of it verging on kabbalah in its attachment to evidence. But the most important feature of he recall is not the moneyslaught that took the Republicans over the line, but the absence of a mass pro-Labour turnout that created the gap that made that victory possible.

To say that a third of union members voted for the Republican is misleading — since one of the issues was Walker’s attempt to abolish mandatory deduction of union fees from pay cheques. That union “right” has long been a double-edged sword, making unions quasi-state apparatuses, with no incentive to organise, recruit or represent.

There’s also the problem of the public/private imbalance in union representation. In the US, unions have all but disappeared from vast swathes of the private sector, while retaining a stake in the public sector. The conditions they’ve won through that organisation thus comes in part from the taxes of the unrepresented — mostly the never-to-be-represented.

The breach in solidarity is near total (much greater than you’d get in Greece, for example). That contradiction is one much-cited culprit for the loss. The other is less complicated — it’s simply low information, the idea that many union members don’t realise what’s at stake, or what sort of general regime Walker is instituting. That’s quite possible — it’s what did for John Howard in ’07, for example.

Now that Scott Walker has a mandate for his union-busting plans — plans he never made public during the 2010 election — he will go hell for leather. Possibly he’ll triumph, and the first state in the US to allow public sector workers to unionise — Wisconsin was a bastion of populist leftism for much of the 20th century — will become the pilot of its demise. Alternatively, victory now may be a prelude to later defeat, and we’ll do it our way, yes, our way, make all our dreams come true. Oh come on, really. Laverne and Shirley. Anyone? That national curriculum can’t come fast enough.

Peter Fray

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