06/08/2012 08:47 am ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

Wisconsin Loss Shouldn't Make Us Forget Other Wins for Labor

Now hold on one minute. Sure, Governor Scott Walker's victory earlier this week is a blow to the labor movement. And it certainly stands as a testament to an absurdly well-financed corporate foe. But let's not get carried away. It does not signal that national voters are ready to begin a full-scale attack on public sector workers or abandon unions all together.

Don't believe me? Just look at what happened in Ohio only seven months ago. Another state-wide contest in another union stronghold yielded dramatically different results. It demonstrated the vitality of the labor movement and it displayed firm voter disgust for union busting.

Our Governor and some of his minions in the Ohio Legislature decided to radically attack working people in our state by stripping public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights. Now, I come from a family of blue-collar steel mill workers. My grandfather stood side-by-side with his union brothers in the steel strike of 1937. Sure, it did not end well for those who were killed or clubbed back to work by a Governor padding the pockets of his friends in the Steel Industry. And it seemed it might not end well again when Senate Bill 5 passed the house in March of last year. But you cannot take away the dignity of working people by force or legislation without a fight. Together we energized the electorate and overturned Senate Bill 5 in a statewide referendum.

When Ohio voters from the rusted urban cores to the rural mining towns along the Ohio River and every quiet suburb in between were asked a simple question: yes or no to destroying collective bargaining rights, they rejected the idea outright. 62% of Ohioans said "no." That's eleven percentage points more than Obama won the state by in 2008. And if the President's campaign fails to defend collective bargaining rights in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, they do so at their own risk.

More important than horse-track predictions about this upcoming election is the national perception of the labor movement across the country. Here, I really want to take on a statement by Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics when he says:

Republicans in the upper Midwest once tread carefully around labor... That is changing, and labor wanted to demonstrate that there would be real, negative consequences for passing laws such as the one Walker pushed through the legislature. Instead it looks like a paper tiger. Future GOP legislators are now less likely to be deterred by labor's muscle, rather than more, especially as data increasingly suggest that the GOP can win the message wars on labor-related issues...

In other words, Republicans no longer have to fear the voting power of the working class and they now have a free hand to implement anti-worker policies. That the once imposing lion of labor is now a fragile "paper tiger." So, if you'll excuse me, I want to interrupt that story because it is plainly untrue.

We organized and collected over one million signatures, the most in Ohio history, to put the new law up for a vote. Police, firefighters, teachers, state, county and municipal workers all said no. No, we will not let you take our rights away. No, we will not allow you to pit us against each other. Well, not only did we win, we demonstrated that working people value partnerships, collective bargaining rights and agreements in tough times. We sent that message to the country. Or, at least, we thought we did. Did you not hear it?

Now, just seven months later it all seems forgotten. The reasons for the failure in Wisconsin are many -- a barrage of unregulated outside money, high turn out among conservative voters, and even the large percentage of absentee votes that leaning more heavily for Walker. But only one key factor can really explain the different results in Wisconsin and Ohio: the difference between a recall and a referendum.

This week we witnessed only the 3rd recall of a sitting governor in US history. Exit polls show that 60% of voters believed recalls were appropriate "only for official misconduct" while 10% said they were "never" appropriate. Leaving only 27% positive toward the idea of a recall at all -- a nearly impossible hill for any candidate to climb. To make matters even worse, over the past few months the election had lost focus on the issue of collective bargaining rights at all. No matter how you shake it down, Tuesday's election was not a battle over draconian union-busting policy.

But, Ohio's referendum was. In a resounding mandate, 2.2 million Ohio voters rejected a Walker-style agenda when given an up or down vote. These results utterly destroy the idea that unions in the rust belt can't defend working people from a right-wing agenda -- and any political observer looses sight of the bigger picture when they fail to notice.

Remember, these laws in Ohio and Wisconsin were not designed to "balance the budget" or force lazy, uncooperative workers to share in the sacrifices we all have to make in hard times. They are meant to incapacitate, to paralyze the voting power of not just the unions themselves but of all middle-class Americans. They intend to clear a path for long-term Wall Street domination of Main Street. And we already know what happens when we allow that -- reckless greed, catastrophic failure, and a scheme to make us pay for it all. That's why I can't in good faith allow anyone to forget the other story, the counter narrative to one of immanent union decline. We have scored a major victory in Ohio. So while you may think Wisconsin was a decisive loss, you'd be a fool to think it is the end of the war.