Voters in Wisconsin today go to the polls in a recall election that the nation and the world are closely watching in anticipation of what is sure to be a close contest this fall between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
In 2010 Republican Scott Walker won the governorship in a tight race against Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat who finds himself challenging Walker again with the help of Wisconsin voters outraged over the anti-union laws and austerity policies passed by Walker in the wake of the financial collapse that left the state with a $3 billion budget deficit.
To close the budget gap Walker initiated austerity policies that included deep cuts to state services, without raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest individuals and corporations. Even more controversially, he passed legislation with a newly elected Republican state assembly that effectively ended the collective bargaining rights of public union employees including state workers, teachers, police, and fire fighters. The attempt to roll back the rights and benefits of public employees in other states has had mixed success in New Jersey, which successfully did so, but not in Ohio, where voters rejected this strategy.
Wisconsin is a state with labor and populist roots that run deep, reaching back to Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the famous progressive governor and presidential candidate who stood up for workers and the middle-class against the growing influence of robber barons and corporations on government in the 1920s. That kind of progressive populism is a tradition that the state takes great pride in, and enough voters rejected Walker’s attempt to roll back the gains made by labor that they forced a recall election.
The election is being closely watched around the nation because it might signal the mood of voters concerning the controlling issue of this presidential election: the role of government in ensuring a fair economy that benefits all citizens. It is also being watched around the world in the wake of several election upsets in European countries such as France and Greece where voters have rejected political parties attempting to implement austerity measures, and have instead elected democratic socialist majorities.
Whether the recall election in Wisconsin signals the mood of the national electorate or workers around the world is an independent issue, however. At stake now is the right of workers in that state to collective bargaining, and to share some measure of power in determining the conditions of their employment. To cede that right to employers such as the state, which Walker’s anti-union policies attempt to do, is to resign millions of middle-class families to job insecurity during a difficult and prolonged recession.
The Republican mantra touted by Walker, Romney, and others is to balance budgets by cutting government services, without also raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. This is a stupid and short-sighted policy that undercuts effective demand in the short and long term, and therefore runs deeply counter to a sound strategy for lifting the economy out of recession. Let’s hope the voters of Wisconsin reject this mantra and return the state to a more sensible path of governance.