Labor Wars In Wisconsin and Ohio – Why Different Results?

scott walker

Photo: Scott Walker for Governor

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker

In 2011 Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Governor John Kasich of  Ohio took on public employee unions.  Both Republican leaders, buoyed by big GOP gains in 2010 and growing voter anger over government spending and debt, signed laws that severely limited the power of public worker unions. In Wisconsin it was a series of laws, here in Ohio it was the infamous Senate Bill 5.   Both governors so outraged organized labor and liberal Democrats that their opponents immediately moved to the ballot to overturn the union limits.  The fight was the same, but the results were much different. Here’s why.

Different Constitutions

The two states’ constitutions allowed for different paths.  Wisconsin voters cannot repeal laws, but they can recall politicians. Ohio voters can’t recall their leaders, but they can repeal laws.  This gave Governor Walker more time.   In Ohio, organized labor mobilized quickly, organized their vote and easily overturned Senate Bill 5.  But they only had to keep voters angry for six months.

Unions and Democrats in Wisconsin had to maintain voter anger for more than a year.  And in our cable news-fueled-short-attention-span America, that’s hard to do. (Some cheese-heads are probably more angry with the Giants for beating the Packers in the NFL Playoffs than they are with Scott Walker.)

Issue v. Candidate

Ohioans voted on an issue not an individual candidate. Yes, opponents of Senate Bill 5 made John Kasich the face of the campaign, but voters were deciding ballot issue #3 , a number, text on the ballot, not Kasich himself.  Had 2011 been a recall of John Kasich, with his political career and control of state government on the line, it would have been a much more difficult campaign for SB #5 opponents.

Unlike Ohio’s issue campaign, the Wisconsin recall was personal.  Opponents were going after Governor Walker, his supporters and Republican control of Wisconsin state government. Walker and his supporters had their backs to the wall and that provides for a much more vigorous defense.

And Wisconsin voters were not  just saying “Yes” or “No” to Scott Walker, they were asked to say “Yes” or “No” to his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a man they said “No” to in 2010.  It’s a lot easier just to say “No” to an issue or disliked politician than it is to choose between two politicians.

Focus of Campaign

Because of the length and personal nature of the campaign, and the fact it happened five months before the presidential election, the Wisconsin recall had a lot more “baggage” than Ohio’s SB #5 vote had.  Ohioans voted on one issue – limits on collective bargaining.  Wisconsin voters decided much more  than collective bargaining limits. They voted on Gov. Walker’s performance, the future direction of public sector spending,  the economy, and essentially whether Democrats and President Obama are the one’s to lead the state and the nation.

Tea Party, Big Money

As John Kasich and Ohio Republicans were defending Senate Bill 5, their Tea Party allies’ attention was elsewhere: President Obama’s healthcare law.  Instead of helping keep the union limits, the Ohio Tea Party focused mainly on the other big question of the ballot, the one that asked voters if Ohio should be exempt from a federal health insurance mandate.  Their issue won easily, while Kasich’s SB#5 failed.

In Wisconsin, the Tea Party was FULLY engaged and was for months.  They mobilized supporters not only in Wisconsin but across the nation. It also helped Scott Walker out  fund-raise and outspend his opponent by a 7 – 1 margin.    In Ohio, unions and their supporters vastly outspent SB#5 supporters.

The Big Difference – Maybe Wisconsin Voters Like The Union Limits

For the biggest difference between the Ohio and Wisconsin campaigns we again look to the states’ constitutions.  As soon as opponents to Senate Bill 5 collected sufficient signatures, the law was put on hold. It did not take effect.  Ohioans  were not able to see it in action, they were not able to see if it would curb government spending, if it would lead to chaos on the streets as the unions predicted. Ohio voters never got the chance to see if claims made by SB #5 supporters and opponents would come true.

Because Wisconsin does not allow for voter repeal of laws, Governor Walker’s union limits did take effect almost immediately.   For the past year, Wisconsin residents have been able to gauge the positive and negative effects of public workers paying more for health insurance and pensions.  Based on the results, it looks like voters don’t mind the limits.

And don’t forget the Wisconsin law exempted police and firefighter unions from most of its provisions, while Ohio’s SB#5 did not exclude public safety unions.   That meant opponents were not able to use television images of burning buildings and threats to public safety as a reason to vote against Scott Walker and his union limits.   And cops and firefighters were not motivated to come out and vote against Walker.

Wisconsin and Ohio, same union-based anger, very different results.



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