FRACTURED: Labor, Dem Split in WI Could Hurt Electoral Prospects

By: Brian Sikma

This week Wisconsin Democrats may have done more than anyone else to defeat their recall effort aimed at removing Governor Scott Walker, Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, and three state senators from office.

Driving the debate in Wisconsin for the past several weeks was legislation to overhaul the state’s outdated mining regulations. At stake was a proposed iron ore mine in the northern Wisconsin – an area widely viewed as the most economically depressed part of the state. Mine investors noted that the hundreds of direct jobs that would be created had an average salary nearly twice the current per-household income of the region. Hundreds more ancillary jobs would also have been created in other parts of the state as the mine contracted with businesses such as Caterpillar Mining’s Milwaukee plant to manufacture the equipment needed to operate the mine.

On Tuesday, March 6, state Senate Democrats killed the regulatory overhaul that would have eliminated unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles to the issuance of a mine permit and clarified the subsequent regulatory structure under which mines must operate. Since burdensome regulations were imposed decades ago, no new iron mines have been opened in Wisconsin even though the state has one of the largest iron ore deposits in the United States.

After Senate Democrats scored a coup to kill the mine legislation by garnering the support of a lone Republican engulfed in an interpersonal conflict with fellow GOP senators, one of the state’s leading union officials blasted the move saying Democrats were proving that they were “job killers.” Lyle Balistreri, head of the 15,000 plus-member Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council, an AFL-CIO affiliate, took to the stage at a union rally the evening following the vote and delivered blistering remarks castigating Democrats for opposing the legislation.

The crowd of restless union members met his unscheduled anti-Democrat comments at a rally intended as an anti-Walker event with calls of approval.

In a follow-up television interview, Balistreri – whose union has backed several Democrats who are now state Senators – declared, “For the Senate Democrats to vote against this bill is a sign that they’re not with us.” Hours before the Senate vote the day before, several construction unions rallied in Madison to demonstrate their support for the reform.

This latest controversy is only a continuing development in a growing feud that could split the once-powerful alliance between unions and Wisconsin Democrats.

When several leading unions extracted a budget-veto promise from Democrat gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Falk in exchange for their endorsement in the recall Walker campaign, an intra-union spat become a public controversy. WEAC, the state’s teachers union, was responsible for creating the pledge. But when union president Mary Bell lied to the press about the existence of the pledge she was blasted by a police union official who disagreed with both the pledge and Bell’s attempt to cover it up.

WEAC’s unprecedented failure to poll its membership before endorsing Falk landed it in hot water from both rank-and-file union members and progressive bloggers.

The nationally observed protests at the Wisconsin state capitol in the spring of 2011 were a public demonstration of the strong relationship between Big Labor and the Democratic Party. Recall efforts aimed at Republican state Senators following the collective bargaining reform battle failed to net Democrats their desired majority in the state Senate. In that fight unions and their allies spent more money than the Democratic Party, and if Democrats hope to be competitive in this round of recalls they are going to have to rely on union spending.

The split between Wisconsin labor leaders and Wisconsin Democrats is no small thing considering they have been in complete lockstep since Republicans took control of the state in 2010. The current disagreement with public sector unions going after one another, public sector unions opposing private sector unions, and both groups warring against the Democrat establishment, could signal the demise of a once-powerful alliance. At minimum, with national unions reluctant to play in state issues as they work to re-elect President Obama, the state-level feud reveals an opportunity for conservatives to exploit the deep divide that marks the often eclectic coalition that Democrats frequently depend upon to win elections.

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