The fistfight at the Short BranchSaloon in Neenah began after Dan Wintheiser, a union worker at amanhole-cover foundry, altered a yard sign promoting Wisconsin’sgovernor to read “I Can’t Stand Walker.”
Wintheiser said he tried to stop the punch-up betweenworkers and managers that he set off at a May 30 retirementparty. still, it drove home that no matter what happens intomorrow’s recall election pitting Democratic Milwaukee MayorTom Barrett against Republican Scott Walker, Wisconsin won’tgreet the next day’s sunrise in a spirit of peace and unity.
“I just see the divide getting deeper and deeper,” saidWintheiser, 50. He said there was a “huge fight” over therecall at his dinner table — on Mothers’ Day.
While Americans have gone to the polls only twice to recalla governor — in 2003 and 1921 — those votes didn’t carry thenational significance of tomorrow’s election. Organized labor istrying to halt nationwide momentum from Walker’s collective-bargaining restrictions on public-employee unions. Both partiessee the election as a proxy for the presidential contest. Andconservatives are embracing Walker as the standard-bearer forausterity and backing him with more than $30 million, most of itraised since January.
“We’re in a battle for freedom in this country,” Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin native and chairman of the RepublicanNational Committee, told about 75 Walker supporters yesterday inGermantown. “We’re not only in a battle for the state ofWisconsin; we’re in a battle for the future of America.”
The recall effort that started last year after Walkerpushed limits on unions through the Legislature hasmetamorphosed into a debate over the job climate and controllingthe cost of government services. most minds, according to polls,were made up long ago. Undecideds are a sliver of theelectorate.
“This election, as we all know, will be determined byturnout,” said U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, a Democrat whocampaigned with Barrett yesterday at a coffee shop in Oshkosh.“We’re fairly well evenly divided. That’s what Wisconsin isthese days.”
Wisconsin, a hotbed of the early 20th century’s Progressivemovement, is polarized. Voters recalled two Republican statesenators last year of nine who were challenged. Walker will beup for an ouster vote along with Republican Lieutenant GovernorRebecca Kleefisch and four state senators from their party.
Barrett, 58, who lost the 2010 governor’s race to Walker byabout 125,000 votes, said his opponent’s agenda “is all aboutthe Tea Party. It’s all about making Wisconsin this experimentaldish for all these radical notions.”
“He’s obsessed about becoming the rock star of the farright,” Barrett told about 60 supporters in the Oshkosh coffeeshop.
At a strip mall along a freeway in Germantown, where womenjumped up and down with Walker placards urging drivers to honktheir horns, the governor quoted the Wisconsin constitution.
“Moderation and frugality in government leads to freedomand prosperity for our people,” he told cheering supporters.“And that’s what this is all about.”
A Walker victory would embolden labor opponents nationwideto continue chipping away at unions, including by weakening theNational Labor Relations Board and banning requirements thatworkers pay dues, said William Jones, a historian of themovement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“We’ll certainly see those trends increasing,” Jonessaid. “The outcome of the recall election could have a bigimpact nationally.”
Labor is already on the defensive. Although Ohio voterslast year repealed by 61 percent a law limiting bargaining andrequiring increased pension and health-care insurance paymentschampioned by Republican Governor John Kasich, it has lostground elsewhere. Governor Mitch Daniels and fellow Republicanlawmakers made Indiana the nation’s 23rd so-called right-to-workstate Feb. 1 by exempting nonunion employees from paying dueswhen working alongside unionized colleagues.
The rate of U.S. union membership fell to a record low in2011, with collective-bargaining units representing just 6.9percent of employees in nongovernment jobs, down from 7.2percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of LaborStatistics.
Wisconsin membership in the American Federation of State,County and Municipal Employees, the state’s second-largestpublic union, fell to 28,745 in February from 62,818 in March2011, according to the Wall Street Journal, which cited ananonymous source.
While membership has declined, the numbers published by theJournal are “wildly inaccurate,” Bob Allen, a spokesman forAFSCME Wisconsin, said in a telephone interview and e-mailedstatement. the union doesn’t disclose its membership numbers, hesaid.
If Walker is recalled, it will be “a shot in the arm forlabor,” said Robert Reich, who was labor secretary underDemocratic President bill Clinton.
Clinton campaigned for Barrett last week. New JerseyGovernor Chris Christie has been part of a cadre of Republicansstumping for Walker.
Barrett and Walker hopscotched around the state today toencourage people to go to the polls. Election officials haveforecast 60 to 65 percent of registered voters will castballots. While the recall will officially end with tomorrow’svote, members of both parties said wounds will not heal quickly.
“People don’t want to respect other peoples’ opinionsanymore,” Wintheiser, the foundry worker, said. “It’s becomethat contentious.”
Jean Barina, 64, a freelance court reporter from Milwaukeeat Walker’s strip-mall rally, said there “will be hard feelingsfor a while.” as to how long that lasts, Barina said, “You’llhave to ask the Democrats that. We’re prepared to be at peace.”
To contact the reporters on this story:Timothy Jones in Germantown at firstname.lastname@example.org;Mark Niquette in Columbus at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story:Stephen Merelman at firstname.lastname@example.org