Balance of Power: Walker's union proposal could be major setback for state's Democratic Party

Balance of Power: Walker's union proposal could be major setback for state's Democratic Party

A Wisconsin State Journal Special Report


Of the nearly $7 million labor unions have contributed to state candidates in Wisconsin over the last six election cycles, 93 cents of every dollar has gone to a Democrat.

Among educators, it's 75 cents of every buck. For public employees, 73 cents.

The data compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign for the State Journal starkly illustrate why the high-stakes battle between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and labor unions over the last three weeks is about more than budget shortfalls and bargaining.

"I consider organized labor to be the backbone of the Democratic Party," said Mike Tate, state party chairman. "Part of Scott Walker's strategy is to weaken the infrastructure of the Democratic Party."

Walker has proposed eliminating most collective bargaining for most public workers, including state and local government employees, and teachers.

His plan — approved by the Assembly but stalled in the Senate — also would make it harder for public unions to collect dues, require unions to hold annual certification elections and impose a host of other measures that unions and labor experts said would cripple public unions and potentially render them useless.

Walker and other Wisconsin Republicans won't acknowledge a motivation other than to help the state close a $137 million budget deficit in the current fiscal year and a projected $3.6 billion gap over the next two years.

However, conservatives have long complained about the ties between public employee unions and Democrats.

"What you have with this process is taxpayers' money going to fund a process where people advocate for more spending of taxpayers' money," Walker told the State Journal last week. "That's why for us it is a budgetary issue."

According to Democracy Campaign data, Walker's top donors in 2010 included those involved in manufacturing, construction and banking, while educators, civil servants and labor unions were among the groups least likely to contribute to his campaign. 

Wisconsin is one of several states led by Republican governors who are seeking to reduce the cost of government by reining in public employee unions. Walker's proposals have sparked three weeks of historic protests attended by tens of thousands of people who say his plans threaten the existence of public employee unions.

The prospect of weakened public employee unions could shift the balance of political power in the state and the country, observers said. That's in part because it would come on the heels of last year's landmark Supreme Court ruling that lifts restrictions on campaign contributions from corporations, which mostly contribute to Republicans, and unions. 

"If the unions are weaker and poorer, they obviously will be in a diminished political position," said Trevor Potter, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign lawyer and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. "In terms of money and volunteers, that adversely affects Democrats."

The pillars of Democratic politics

Over the last 12 years, individuals and political action committees have donated at least $117 million to Democratic and Republican state political candidates in Wisconsin, according to the Democracy Campaign, which compiles the data listed on campaign finance reports filed with the state. The amount is likely larger because the group maintains records only on contributions of $100 and up. The figures also don't include independent expenditures or spending on so-called "issue ads," which don't advocate for a particular candidate.

Among Democrats, only lawyers have contributed more money to state Democrats than labor unions have, and unions more than any other group have given more disproportionately to Democrats, the data show.

Unions, lawyers, wealthy people and Internet donors are the pillars of Democratic politics, said Paul Maslin, a Madison-based political strategist and pollster who polled for Tom Barrett, Walker's Democratic opponent last year. Remove unions, and Democrats have a harder time getting elected, he said.

And Democrats don't rely only on union dollars. Unions are a source of campaign volunteers, engaging in everything from peer-to-peer advocacy to phone bank staffing, said Jason Sidner, political director for AFSCME Council 40, which represents 32,000 city, state, school district and private sector workers statewide other than in Milwaukee County.

Unions even supply Democratic candidates.

Mike Sheridan rose from Janesville auto worker and local union president to Assembly speaker until he was defeated in his re-election bid last year. Current Democratic members of the Legislature with union backgrounds include Sens. Spencer Coggs of Milwaukee and Dave Hansen of Green Bay, and Rep. Cory Mason of Racine.

Unions revitalized

Democrats, Republicans and outside observers agree that a political strength of labor unions is intensity.

Although corporations have always had more money to spend on politics than unions, they traditionally haven't done so, said Potter, the top lawyer for Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign who also defended the campaign spending law crafted by McCain and former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Middleton before the Supreme Court. 

And now that they feel threatened in Wisconsin and elsewhere, union members are revitalized.

"They awoke a sleeping giant," Joe Wineke, who preceded Tate as state Democratic party chairman, said of Walker's administration.

Mike Recklies, a correctional officer in Walworth County and a member of Council 40, said he voted for Walker because he campaigned to balance the budget, opposes abortion and backs the concealed carry of weapons. But Recklies said he didn't expect fellow Republican Walker to propose measures that would harm his union, and now he won't back the governor in another election.

"No way, no how, and everybody that I work with who voted conservative or Republican said they'd pretty much never do it again," he said.

Jim Troupis, a lawyer for Republicans and conservative causes who backs Walker's plan, said public sector employees could emerge more unified if the proposal is enacted.

"Volunteer participation leads to real participation, so in many ways it can be a catalyst for greater strength," he said.

Labor Unions$6,512,827.97$471,301.00$6,984,128.97
Lawyers/Law Firms/Lobbyists$7,580,620.22$2,824,496.03$10,405,116.25
Civil servant/public employee$2,144,436.17$811,934.95$2,956,371.12
Non-Profit/Social Services$908,165.47$266,009.68$1,174,175.15
Telecommunications & Computers$1,269,373.27$1,198,636.32$2,468,009.59
Health Services/Institutions$2,032,692.30$2,532,309.54$4,565,001.84
Natural Resources$1,134,432.29$1,676,727.75$2,811,160.04
Road Construction$846,927.72$1,489,349.44$2,336,277.16
Retired/Homemakers/Non-income earners$3,416,477.60$4,279,822.79$7,696,300.39
Health Professionals$3,869,292.83$4,755,065.24$8,624,358.07
Real Estate$2,389,479.18$3,593,744.32$5,983,223.50
Banking & Finance$3,290,184.46$5,791,423.45$9,081,607.91
Manufacturing & Distributing$1,972,489.04$5,595,825.46$7,568,314.50
1National Association of Realtors $22.449.7%50.3%
2International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers $16.496.8%3.2%
3National Auto Dealers Association $15.833.7%66.3%
4Laborers Union $15.289.7%10.3%
5National Beer Wholesalers Association $15.134.3%65.7%
6American Bankers Association $13.736.2%63.8%
7Teamsters Union $13.592.0%8.0%
8National Association of Home Builders$11.435.8%64.2%
9Credit Union National Association $11.148.4%51.6%
10Carpenters & Joiners Union $10.779.6%20.4%
11American Federation of Teachers $10.098.4%1.6%
12AT&T Inc $9.642.7%57.3%
13American Fed. of State/Cnty/Munic Employees $9.497.0%3.0%
14United Auto Workers $8.898.8%1.3%
15Machinists/Aerospace Workers Union$8.798.5%1.5%
16American Medical Association $8.634.8%65.3%
17Operating Engineers Union $8.384.3%15.7%
18American Association for Justice $8.196.0%4.0%
19Service Employees International Union$8.089.5%10.5%
20Association of Trial Lawyers of America $7.789.3%10.7%
21International Association of Fire Fighters $7.077.0%23.0%
22Plumbers/Pipefitters Union$6.394.0%6.0%
23Honeywell International $6.253.0%47.0%
24United Parcel Service $6.131.7%68.3%
25National Education Association $3.693.0%7.0%

NOTE: Totals include subsidiaries and affiliated PACs, if any; Totals may not equal 100 percent due to rounding.

SOURCE: Center for Responsive Politics

Interest Group2010 Election
Retired, non-income$1,002,569
Manufacturing, distributing$982,866
Health professionals$710,194
Banking, finance$708,392
Real estate$461,204
Lawyers, law firms, lobbyists$322,034
Health institutions$309,364
Natural resources$208,862
Tourism, entertainment$174,231
Road construction$145,279
Political, ideological$141,820
Telecommunications, computers$125,942
Civil servants $54,092
Labor unions$30,260

SOURCE: Wisconsin Democracy Campaign,

Top Contributors2010 Election
Realtors PAC$43,125
Concerned Realtors Committee$43,125
WI Dental PAC (WIDPAC)$41,000
People for Rebecca Kleefisch$35,050
Louis & Michele Gentine (Sargento Inc)$22,500
John & Kathryn Burke (Burke Properties)$21,250
Roy & Roberta Reiman (Hexagon Investments/Reiman Publications)$20,500
Andrew & Carlene Ziegler (Artisan Partners)$20,000
Gary & Gail Reynolds (GMR Marketing)$20,000
Ralph & Shelly Stayer (Johnsonville Foods)$20,000
Dennis & Sandy Kuester (M&I Bank)$20,000
Steve & Nancy Einhorn (Einhorn Associates)$20,000
Michael & Cathy White (Rite-Hite Holding Corp)$20,000
Arnold & Rosalind Katz (AMK Concepts & Services)$20,000

NOTE: Minimum of $20,000 in donations

SOURCE: Wisconsin Democracy Campaign,


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