After Governor Scott Walker's win in Wisconsin last night, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka decided to walk a strange line on today's press call. WaPo's The Fix has a post arguing that the call was about distancing the union from the recall effort, but to me the union president seemed eager to point to victories—a strange tactic in the face of a devastating loss.
"The best-funded politician in state history spent more than $50 million to hold on to his office but he could not hold on to a majority in the state senate!" he said. True, it looks like the Democrats won a single Senate seat last night, giving them control of the chamber. But as I've written, that doesn't necessarily mean much. Barring a special session, the legislature isn't meeting again until January of 2013—so Democrats will have to hold on past the November elections.
Guy Molyneux, a pollster with Hart Research Associates, walked everyone through an election-night poll of 390 union members (as opposed to "union households" which many reports have focused on.) Presumably, the survey was meant to show us labor's united front—Molyneau pointed to Democrat Tom Barrett's "broad-based" support among union workers and noted that all but 14 percent of union members support collective bargaining. Trouble is, even among the union members surveyed, one in four went with Walker.
Trumka was determined to paint things in a positive light. He focused on the race's huge disparity in funding, and pointed to a strong organizing effort from labor activists in spite of the money. When asked what the union might have done differently in the recall effort, Trumka shrugged off the question. "Hell, I don't know if we'd do anything differently," he said. "Would Scott Walker do anything different? I bet he would! He's lost control of the Senate!" (Again, that only matters if the Dems can hold it in November.)
Admittedly, there's no good way to address a loss to the press. The AFL-CIO isn't just about Wisconsin; it has other states to worry about (likely more now that Walker's approach seems to have worked politically.) Still, it seems increasingly apparent that unions will have to undergo dramatic shifts to gain back some political power. The White House stayed away from the fight, seemingly because the risks of losing were greater than the risks of offending labor. Among conservatives, "union" has become a dirty word. You have to wonder if, behind closed doors, union leaders have a plan to re-create their movement. Or at least see the need for such a plan.
Publicly, there was little to indicate that. The recall showed that "politicians will be held to account by working people," Trumka said.
Except that Walker is still governor and labor looks weaker now than it did a few months ago.