Why Did So Many Workers Vote for Walker?

Bill Leumer


By Bill Leumer

In the wake of a major setback for organized labor, because of its failure to unseat rabid anti-union Wisconsin Governor Walker, many in the labor movement have offered their various diagnoses to explain the defeat. Most gravitate around the convenient excuse that labor was vastly outspent by the right wing. We are reprinting the one below by Jim Cavanaugh, President of the South Central Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, Madison, Wisconsin, because it is more enlightened than most analyses. For example, he explicitly rejects the “outspent” excuse. Instead he focuses on some of the real issues such as low wages among working people and the successful propaganda promoted by the wealthy that has not been challenged by top labor officials.

Cavanaugh also points in the right direction regarding what labor should be doing. He mentions campaigns around raising taxes on the rich and advocates pursuing “a coherent and consistent pro-working class agenda,” which could take the form of “some other vehicle” than electing Democrats to office.

His article does have some weaknesses. He seems to give too much weight to the Buffett rule supported by Obama that would raise taxes on the rich. What he fails to mention is that Obama already broke one promise regarding raising taxes on the rich when he extended the Bush tax cuts. Moreover, the Buffett rule would only raise taxes on the rich up to the level of taxes paid by many working people, that is 30 percent, while it should be much higher.  Under Eisenhower, taxes on the rich were set at 90 percent.

Finally, he fails to mention one of the biggest reasons organized labor failed in Wisconsin: it has negotiated one concessionary contract after another. It would be different if everyone in society were suffering a decline in their standard of living. But these concessions are inexcusable in the context of the rich getting ever richer.

Why Did So Many Workers Vote for Walker?

Jim Cavanaugh

June 9, 2012

The results of the Wisconsin recall election were very similar to the first run of this matchup in November 2010, when Scott Walker beat Tom Barrett. This means that the radical right agenda of the GOPers elected in 2010 has not turned off the voters.

How can a government of the 1% receive so much support from the 99%?

In the case of the Wisconsin election, there’s been a lot of finger pointing and speculation post-election: Walker used loose campaign finance rules to overwhelm Barrett financially; Obama didn’t come to Wisconsin; unions didn’t force the collective bargaining issue front and center. And so on.

Yet pre-election polling and Election Day exit polling showed that the vast majority of voters had taken their positions months before the serious campaigning. So, the money and the celebrities made little difference. And people were already as informed on the issues as they wanted to be.

The fact is the radical right is very good at propaganda. They have used race and cultural issues to hold their base and they have used anti-government rhetoric in an era of frustrated economic hopes and resentment to expand that base to majority status.

Walker, even more so than in 2010, ran against Milwaukee and Madison.

His negative ads against Milwaukee Mayor Barrett were actually negative ads against the mayor’s city, equating it with high unemployment, rising property taxes, crime, and poverty. This is the tried-and-true GOP race card because everybody knows Milwaukee has a substantial population of dark-skinned people.

And Madison, of course, is the state capital where privileged bureaucrats earn too much, enjoy too rich benefits, and do too little work.

Walker did not dream up this argument. Even before the 2010 election, on-the-ground research from a University of Wisconsin professor showed that ordinary Wisconsinites outside of Madison had a very negative view of this city of large government office buildings, a fairly high standard of living, and liberal politics. Walker simply exploited an existing bias.

Exit polling showed Walker won the votes of a majority of non-college graduates, along with way too many union households (around 38 percent) in both 2010 and 2012.

Meanwhile, college graduates—the ever-shrinking middle-income households—and the very poor did not vote for Walker.

In other words, way too much of the working class voted for Walker.

We progressive labor people might smugly shake our heads and ask, how can these people vote against their own interests? While some of them are serious cultural conservatives or racists, probably a majority legitimately see themselves as actually voting in their own self interest.

People struggling to get by on $12-15 an hour have to watch every penny. And the Republican message of small government and low taxes resonates every time a worker pays sales tax, property tax, or income tax.

And thanks in part to a gullible or lazy media which dutifully and uncritically repeats GOP propaganda about the eventual demise of Social Security and Medicare, struggling workers have a jaundiced view of their payroll taxes. The Republicans, with their expensive wars and tax giveaways for the wealthy, are certainly not the party of small government and fiscal responsibility, but they have sold their message well.

If progressives hope to regain governing power, they have to win back the “unfriendlies” in the working class, as Mike Amato correctly points out. They might not be able to garner the support of the devoted racists and cultural conservatives, but they can and must win the loyalty of the others.

We can get started right away with the issue of taxes. Not by promising tax cuts, but rather tax fairness. At every level of government in the United States our tax structure is one of the most regressive in the world.

Obama, to his credit, has made some effort to address this by calling for the Buffet rule, which would lift taxes on millionaires, and an end to the Bush tax cuts for the super rich. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton (who I can now publicly admit I could never bring myself to vote for) undermines this push by giving the Republican argument that rolling back these tax cuts would hurt the economy.

As usual, Democrats do not seem to have a coherent and consistent philosophy on matters of important public policy. Nor do they appear to have a plan beyond the next election.

The Republicans clearly do.

Unions and other progressives must push the Democrats or some other vehicle to pursue a coherent and consistent pro-working class agenda, or we will continue to be governed by Walker types and to wring our hands over this state of affairs.

Originally published in Labor Notes


Tags: , , , , , ,

About the Author: Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.), former member of IBT Local 216 and was a pro-Carey TDU member. He is a writer for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.