The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is making Gov. Scott Walker a top target in the fall election, the group’s national president said in an interview published Wednesday.
“We have a score to settle with Scott Walker,” AFSCME president Lee Saunders told the Washington Post, in what it described as his first interview about the union’s strategy. “He stole our voices, in a state where we were born.”
Saunders was referring to the 2011 law, known as Act 10, that triggered massive protests and an unsuccessful recall attempt in 2012. It remains a major issue in the governor’s race between Walker and Madison School Board member Mary Burke.
Saunders said the group’s membership in Wisconsin is down to about 25,000 members, which would be a 60 percent decline from a pre-Act 10 figure that the Associated Press reported in mid-2012. At that time, internal union documents showed membership had fallen from 63,577 to 35,942.
An AFSCME spokeswoman said Saunders wasn’t available Wednesday for an interview with the State Journal. Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 40, which represents Dane County and other municipal employees, confirmed the 25,000 membership figure, but said some members who left the union are starting to return.
“This election is, of course, a priority for our members,” Badger said. “Our members are energized and already are turning out to volunteer and make sure we have a big voter turnout in November. But we are certainly not alone. ... We have a lot of allies, and the polls are consistently bearing this out.”
Closely watched race
Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race has emerged as one of the most closely watched in the nation with polls showing the candidates deadlocked less than two months before election day.
UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said he expects Burke will need strong national union support in order to defeat Walker, who has already appealed to voters and donors by saying that “big union bosses” are backing Burke.
“Walker has had no trouble raising money,” Burden said. “Mary Burke is new to that business and doesn’t have that base of supporters and is going to work harder to raise a competitive sum of money. Unions from beyond the state could be essential for her to be competitive.”
A record $81 million was spent on the gubernatorial recall in 2012, including $36.5 million from outside groups, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Of that, $14 million came from groups backing Democrats, with a large share of that coming from state and national unions, said Mike McCabe, executive director.
“It’s fair to expect that they’ll come in and come in hard,” McCabe said of union spending on the 2014 election. He added that he expects total spending to be less than what it was for the recall, but more than the $37.4 million spent on the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Saunders did not disclose how much his group plans to spend on the election, but he said it will have 40,000 staff and volunteers across the country knocking on doors, making phone calls and visiting work sites. The group is backing Democratic gubernatorial candidates in other states such as Illinois, Michigan, Connecticut and Florida to prevent a “Wisconsin moment,” the Washington Post reported.
Union founded in Madison
AFSCME was founded in Madison in 1932. The original group became AFSCME Council 24, also known as the Wisconsin State Employees Union.
Two other AFSCME councils in Wisconsin cover Milwaukee and other municipal employees. WSEU executive director Marty Beil didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Representatives from the National Education Association, the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the Service Employees International Union also didn’t return calls Wednesday.
“The labor movement has an obligation to be involved (in the election) to show the clear contrasts between the candidates and fight for what’s in the best long-term interest of families and communities in Wisconsin,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
“We will mobilize our members, put boots on the ground, knock on doors and invest the necessary resources to help make Wisconsin work for all people, not just the wealthy few,” Weingarten said. “Reclaiming the promise of America — an America where hard work earns good pay and where the right to organize is upheld — starts in Wisconsin with electing Mary Burke.”
Act 10 prohibited municipalities and school districts from negotiating with employees over benefits and working conditions and limited bargaining over wages to an inflationary increase.
The law also prevents employers from automatically deducting union dues from employee paychecks and requires a majority of employees to vote annually on whether to maintain the union.
Walker and Republicans said the law was necessary to close a more than $3 billion projected budget shortfall because it would make it easier for state and municipal employers to reduce spending, primarily by increasing employee contributions to pension and health insurance premiums.
Opponents, including Burke, a former Trek Bicycle executive and state Commerce secretary, said the law was a heavy-handed attempt to reduce the influence of unions, which tend to support Democrats.
The Burke campaign declined to comment on Saunders’ remarks.
Walker campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said unions will “stop at nothing to undo the recall by bankrolling Mary Burke’s campaign.”
“When the union bosses say they ‘have a score to settle with Scott Walker,’ they really mean Wisconsin taxpayers because that’s who Governor Walker is protecting with his reforms,” Marre said.