June 7, 2012

Maine unions could feel impact from Wisconsin recall failure

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Organized labor advocates are downplaying the local impact of a failed union-backed effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. However, a national labor expert said Maine could become a battleground between labor and a GOP spurred by its victory in the birthplace of public-sector unions.

"Unions are going to try and minimize this, but Wisconsin is an unmitigated disaster for organized labor," said Gary Chaison, a labor specialist at Clark University. "This shows them at their weakest. It's going to embolden politicians elsewhere to make additional moves against public sector unions."

Chaison said Walker's defeat Tuesday of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett after the governor eliminated collective bargaining rights for public employees could transform Republican governors into "a bunch of Margaret Thatchers," a reference to the former British prime minister who decimated the power of trade unions during her reign in the 1980s.

If Chaison's prognosis is correct, the Wisconsin election raises the stakes in Maine and a November election that union-friendly Democrats hope will give them control of at least one chamber of the Legislature.

Gov. Paul LePage, who Wednesday responded to reporters' questions about Walker's victory with the Jamaican phrase "Yeah, mon!", has already demonstrated a willingness to battle organized labor. Last year the governor announced that Maine would become a "right-to-work" state and his public statements have repeatedly riled labor groups. LePage recently said that middle management state employees were "corrupt."

However, the recently adjourned Republican-led 125th Legislature was less enthusiastic about engaging in tussles with unions. The caucus failed to galvanize behind a pair of right-to-work bills that triggered significant protests last year at the State House.

Walker's win against a determined -- albeit vastly outspent -- union effort to oust him may erode the reluctance to challenge organized labor, Chaison said. Additionally, he said, unions have become a reliable antagonist during a struggling economy and stagnant job growth.

"Ten or 20 years ago politicians turned to unions for endorsements," he said. "Now they're a good source of opposition."

Chaison said unions have an image problem that has been exploited by governors like Walker and LePage.

"There's a perception that public sector unions have special deals and enjoy extra protections that regular workers don't," he said. "It's more perception than reality, but in this battle it's perception that really counts."

He added, "The unions in Wisconsin didn't make the case that there is shared sacrifice between public sector union workers and other workers."

Chris Quint, executive director for the Maine State Employees Association, the state's union for public employees and teachers, said he didn't doubt that Wisconsin would further LePage and like-minded Republicans' "attack against collective bargaining rights."

However, Quint said it was too early to say that Wisconsin would persuade other Republicans to support the governor's agenda. He said his organization and other labor groups worked hard to fight the right-to-work proposals and would do so again.

"It's true that Republicans rejected those bills, but they didn't at first," he said. "They got to that place because they heard from thousands of citizens, union workers and non-union workers."

'Corporate cash'

Matt Schlobohm, of the Maine AFL-CIO, said it was easy to over-interpret the Wisconsin outcome as leading to a national decline of organized labor and the rise of a "regressive, anti-labor, anti-worker, anti-middle class" policies championed by the "tea party-backed LePage and Scott Walkers of the world."

He said, "There's a major fight going on over what kind of economy we're going to have. Is it going to be an economy that works for everyone? Or is going to be an economy that works for the very few, dominated by corporations and the 1 percent?"

(Continued on page 2)

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