Electoral irregularities and promises of recounts have thrown into question the final outcome of the hotly contested race over a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat. Yet, these complications notwithstanding, the elections in Wisconsin last week sent a clear message: The conservative attacks by Republican governors represent a losing strategy.
Regardless of the final result of the Supreme Court race, the fact that progressive challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg was able to run a neck-and-neck race with conservative incumbent David Prosser, who just two months earlier had been favored by 30 points, shows a dramatic reversal. Despite almost $2.2 million in spending by right-wing interest groups in support of Prosser, voters outraged by Governor Scott Walker's recent assaults on workers' rights came out in far greater numbers than expected to oppose the pro-Walker candidate.
Other local races similarly showed that scapegoating unions for states' economic woes is not working for Republicans at the polls. The race for Milwaukee County Executive, a position previously held by Scott Walker himself, took an unexpected turn when Democrat Chris Abele, who had been trailing by 18 points just two months ago, soundly defeated the highly favored Republican candidate, State Rep. Jeff Stone. Abele won the seat with just over 60 percent of the vote, after running television ads that specifically stressed the ties between Stone and Governor Walker.
More broadly, approval ratings for conservative governors seeking to scapegoat public workers have plummeted. In Ohio, recent polling shows that 43 percent of voters in the Buckeye state disapprove of the way Governor John Kasich is handling his job, and 53 percent of voters think that his budget is unfair to them. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder has seen his disapproval ratings jump from 7 percent in mid-January to 43 percent just two months later. And national polling continues to show significant disapproval for these efforts more broadly. A recently released NBC News/Wall Street Journal (PDF) poll showed that 54 percent of Americans opposed the efforts of Republican governors to attack public employees.
However, the fact that conservatives are currently pursuing a losing electoral strategy is not enough for progressives to win in the long run. The labor movement and its allies must seize the current moment and use it as an opportunity to put forward a winning program of our own.
Progressive leaders are right to celebrate all of the hard work at the grassroots level that led to the upheavals in Wisconsin's elections. But we can't set our sights so low that we count a temporary staving off of our opponents' assaults as the best victory we can hope to achieve. Unless we take the confidence we have gained from last week's elections and use it to change the way we organize, this moment will only be a short lull in the frightening downward slide for the American middle class.
Specifically, progressives in general -- and the labor movement in particular -- should take three lessons from last week's elections.
First, we must demand more from our elected officials. In the wake of the battles in Wisconsin, we should have a day of thanks for the 14 Wisconsin state senators who resorted to civil resistance to stand up for what was right. These officials courageously left the state to prevent Walker from strong-arming a vote in the Senate. Going forward, we should use this level of commitment as a new standard. We should hold up their example when prospective officials who are seeking our endorsements vow that they will support our movements.
With this new standard in mind, labor and its community allies can no longer afford to make endorsements based solely on past loyalties or long-standing friendships. We do not need friends; we need champions. And unless public officials who profess to be our friends are willing to take stands like those of the Wisconsin 14, they have not earned our support. Nor can we grant endorsements because officials promise to back a single piece of legislation that benefits our members. This is a path to forever being viewed in the public mind as just another special interest. More than small favors, we need elected officials who consistently stand up to moneyed interests and advance the common good.
This leads to a second lesson: The labor movement needs to be putting forward a public policy agenda that does not just benefit its members, but that demonstrably creates benefits for all working and middle class families. Recent polling shows that Americans believe the voices of working people are not adequately represented in politics. At the same time, they think that unions have too much political power. There is a clear disconnect here. And the labor movement must take responsibility for overcoming it.
Given that unions represent just 12 percent of the workforce, we cannot advocate for public policies that represent only the interests of union members. We must present bigger solutions. We have to be putting forward our own budgets, every year, that bolster the essential community services that people have consistently said they support. We have to advocate changing tax policy and closing loopholes that allow corporations to avoid paying their fair share. We must start a broad conversation about what the proper role of government in our society should be. And we must present clear alternatives to the "starve the beast" program that has been at the heart of the radical conservative agenda going back to the 1980s.
A third lesson for the labor movement is that we must rethink the ways in which we represent working people in America. We have to put forward a new definition of union membership that says, wherever there is a critical mass of workers trying to come together to address issues in their workplace, we should acknowledge it as a union. Whether or not these people fit within traditional union structures, we need to develop an open-source movement that welcomes them. There are thousands of workers' centers and professional organizations in this country that are already expanding the definition of employee representation. At a time when traditional union structures are dying, we need to be able to embrace these new efforts, bring fresh faces to the table, and become advocates for an ever broader range of American workers.
Right now, conservative overreach is backfiring and costing Republicans public support. Americans are outraged over dishonest moves by conservative governors to place blame on teachers and other public servants, rather than to propose genuine solutions to our economic problems. The public is right to be outraged. But unless we implement a real program for change in our organizations that can translate this outcry into long-term support for progressive movements, we, too, will be left without a strategy for winning.
Amy Dean wrote this piece for Progress Illinois. Amy is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations in progressive, labor, and faith communities. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean, or she can be reached via the Web site, www.amybdean.com.
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