Are public union labor leaders trying to save Scott Walker?

Many Democrats who ask that facetious question are among those who most detest the 15-month performance by our divisive first-term Republican governor.

Yet the question seems timely with the formal entry of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett into the May 8 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

One could argue that Barrett, the affable and experienced mayor and ex-congressman, has the best chance among four Democratic candidates to defeat Walker in the June 5 recall, yet public labor leaders are treating him like a pariah.

“Union members protest at Barrett fundraiser,” read a recent Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel headline. Last winter, leaders of the state’s largest teachers and public employees unions met with Barrett to strongly discourage his running for governor.

Sure, as mayor, Barrett has butted heads with labor. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees fought with him over city budget cuts. The Wisconsin Education Association Council opposed his plan two years ago to take control of the troubled Milwaukee Public Schools, and later declined to make independent expenditures on his behalf in the 2010 governor’s race, which he lost to Walker by 52 to 47 percent, or roughly 125,000 votes.

Then last week, AFSCME distributed to its members a video attacking Barrett. It clearly misrepresents Barrett’s position on ending collective bargaining for most public employees.

Barrett, in an interview with a right-wing Milwaukee radio host, had called out Republicans for not voting directly on the collective bargaining changes, instead charging they were using a larger bill as a “Trojan horse.” His comments were excerpted by critics to make it sound as if Barrett supported the anti-union effort. Phillip Walzak, Barrett’s spokesman, calls it an “outright lie that Tom somehow supported Walker.”

An AFSCME spokesman told the Associated Press that the union did not produce the video but that “it does comport with our criticism of Barrett’s behavior during the (collective bargaining) standoff.” The video concludes: “Tom Barrett: Part of the cure or part of the disease?”

Really? Tom Barrett as part of an anti-worker disease?

Public labor unions have mostly endorsed former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk for governor and now seem hell bent on damaging Barrett.

Falk visited our editorial board to discuss her campaign last week and I asked her about labor's attacks on Barrett. “That is their prerogative,” she said, adding “they have a right to be concerned” about Barrett’s commitment to their position, mentioning that Barrett did not immediately sign the Walker recall petition, though he eventually did.

For her part, Falk describes her labor support as part of a matrix of endorsements that includes environmental and women’s groups and reflects her months of hard work. She contrasts that with Barrett’s late entry, which was delayed by his re-election as mayor last week.

Anyway, you can just imagine Walker, his Republican handlers and his out-of-state funders rubbing their hands with glee at this intramural Democratic spectacle.

After all, their overarching narrative for the recall, fueled by a seemingly limitless flow of third-party dollars, is that Walker boldly withstood “union bosses” on behalf of beleaguered taxpayers. That’s it, pretty much.

Jobs? Walker can’t argue that issue, with the nation’s worst job creation record. Trust? At a minimum, he deceived voters about destroying public-sector collective bargaining; at worst, he simply lied.

Leadership? By excluding about half of the electorate from any input on any issue, he has produced the most divided and hyperpartisan political climate in Wisconsin history.

It’s not only collective bargaining by any means. Walker’s attacks on education spending, women’s rights, consumer protections, reasonable regulations and voting rights are all fertile ground. Barrett’s record on those topics is strong, similar to Falk’s.

Besides, does labor think it can turn back the clock on labor rights with a divided Legislature? “The toothpaste is out of the tube and they (labor leaders) don’t seem to realize it,” says one political professional.

So, labor leaders, why are you playing right into the Republican stereotype?

Yes, it was your members and their sympathizers who drove the historic rallies at the Capitol last year and who helped with petitions that set the stage for the first gubernatorial recall vote in Wisconsin’s history.

And yes, from your vantage, you need to look muscular in showing members you are fighting vociferously.

But what about winning?

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Middleton Democrat, has long been one of the Legislature’s most effective and outspoken advocates for public workers and their bargaining rights.

After considering his own bid for governor, Erpenbach endorsed Barrett as being the candidate with the best chance of unseating Walker.

Erpenbach may run for governor one day, but this time he concluded, “I don’t give you the best opportunity to defeat Gov. Walker.”

While loath to criticize Falk, a fellow Dane County politician and friend, Erpenbach’s decision certainly implies he thinks someone not from Dane County would run strongest statewide: “For me personally, the goal is to get him (Walker) out of office before he does any more damage.”

Erpenbach says he has spoken with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people across the state and collective bargaining is only one of many issues on voters’ minds. He says Walker’s cuts to education come up most often and adds “This is about a lot more than collective bargaining.”

Erpenbach aside, my interviews with other Democrats elicit phrases like “labor leaders are blowing it” and are “being selfish.” One says, “What we don’t need is a circular firing squad” during the next month. These Democrats say that while many undecided voters dislike Walker, many also dislike the recall process, and their best-case scenario still has a close election.

They say these labor leaders seem misled by the strong public support they feel within Madison and Milwaukee, that average voters elsewhere still have limited affection for either labor or business, even now.

“If you make this only about unions and collective bargaining, guess what, we lose,” says one.

Some suggest a disconnect between labor leaders and rank-and-file members, many of whom they say are unhappy with leadership.

That’s what the Barrett campaign may be counting on.

“I think Tom Barrett is going to compete for and earn a lot of votes from union members across the state,” says Walzak, Barrett’s spokesman.

“He is going focus on jobs, on bringing people together and ending the ideological civil war of Scott Walker and ending his ‘my way or the highway’ approach to governing,” he adds.

To many, labor’s anti-Barrett crusade is arrogant and clueless.

Support Falk, fine, but why go so hard against Barrett, who after May 8 could be your best hope?

Maybe there is a glass half full. If Barrett wins the primary, Walker cannot argue his foe is beholden to labor bosses.

But somehow I doubt that’s what labor is thinking.

Paul Fanlund is editor and executive publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

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