Organized labor advocates in Maine are downplaying the local impacts of a failed union-backed effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

But a national labor expert said Wednesday that Maine could become a battleground between labor and conservatives spurred by Walker’s victory in the birthplace of public-sector unions.

“Unions are going to try and minimize this, but Wisconsin is an unmitigated disaster for organized labor,” said Dr. Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “This shows them at their weakest. It’s going to embolden politicians elsewhere to make additional moves against public sector unions.”

Walker defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, 53 percent to 46 percent, in a recall election spurred by the governor’s decision to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees and force them to make other contract concessions to help reduce a huge budget deficit.

Gov. Paul LePage, who Wednesday responded to reporters’ questions about Walker’s victory with the Jamaican phrase “Yeah Mon,” has already demonstrated a willingness to battle organized labor.

LePage’s efforts last year to push right-to-work legislation through the Legislature stalled, but Walker’s win could transform LePage and other Republican governors into “a bunch of Margaret Thatchers,” a reference to the former British prime minister who decimated the power of trade unions during her reign in the 1980s, Chaison said.

Not everyone agrees.

Some governors may be reluctant to create the kind of stark divisions seen in Wisconsin, Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the Associated Press.

“Are these governors going to campaign on more attacks on public sector unions?” Lichtenstein said. “I don’t think they are. It’s clear they got a lot of pushback, it’s divisive. It’s difficult to be a governor with complete polarization.”

But if Chaison’s prognosis is correct, the Wisconsin election raises the stakes in Maine in a November election that union-friendly Democrats hope will give them control of at least one chamber of the Legislature.

LePage’s public statements have repeatedly riled labor groups. The governor’s decision to remove a labor mural from the state Department of Labor created controversy, as did his recent statement that middle management state employees were “corrupt.”

The recently adjourned Republican-led 125th Legislature was less enthusiastic about taking on public sector unions. The caucus failed to galvanize behind a pair of right-to-work bills that triggered significant protests last year at the State House.

But Walker’s win against a determined — albeit vastly outspent — union effort to oust him could erode Republican reluctance to challenge organized labor, Chaison said. Additionally, he said, unions have become a reliable target during a struggling economy and stagnant job growth.

“Ten or 20 years ago politicians turned to unions for endorsements,” he said. “Now they’re a good source of opposition (for the GOP).”

Chaison said unions have an image problem that governors such as Walker and LePage have exploited.

“There’s a perception that public sector unions have special deals and enjoy extra protections that regular workers don’t,” he said. “It’s more perception than reality, but in this battle it’s perception that really counts.

“The unions in Wisconsin didn’t make the case that there is shared sacrifice between public sector union workers and other workers,” he added.

Chris Quint, executive director for the Maine State Employees Association, the state’s union for public employees and teachers, said he didn’t doubt that Wisconsin would further LePage and like-minded Republicans’ “attack against collective bargaining rights.”  

However, Quint said it was too early to say that Wisconsin would persuade other Republican legislators to support the governor’s agenda. He said his organization and other labor groups worked hard to fight the right-to-work proposals and would do so again.

“It’s true that Republicans rejected those bills, but they didn’t at first,” he said. “They got to that place because they heard from thousands of citizens, union workers and non-union workers.”

Matt Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO said it was easy to over-interpret the Wisconsin outcome as leading to a national decline of organized labor and the rise of “regressive, anti-labor, anti-worker, anti-middle class” policies championed by the “tea party-backed LePage and Scott Walkers of the world.”

“There’s a major fight going on over what kind of economy we’re going to have,” said Schlobohm. “Is it going to be an economy that works for everyone? Or is going to be an economy that works for the very few, dominated by corporations and the 1 percent?”

Schlobohm said the Wisconsin result was distorted by an unprecedented influx of corporate cash that supported Walker.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity showed that $63.5 million was spent during the recall campaign, shattering Wisconsin’s previous campaign spending record of $37.4 million.

Walker supporters outspent Democrats and labor interests 7.5 to 1.

Schlobohm blamed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 “Citizens United” ruling, which wiped out laws in many states that limited campaign spending by corporations. While that decision also removed caps on campaign spending by labor, Wisconsin showed that labor could not keep pace, said Quint of the Maine employees association.

But Chaison said unions were in a “state of denial” if they blamed the Wisconsin outcome solely on campaign spending.

“What they should be recognizing is that they have lost touch with the people,” he said.

Schlobohm acknowledged that unions need to “reach out more aggressively” to non-union workers. He said all workers need to come together if “they want to balance the weight on a see-saw tilted heavily toward corporations.”

Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant agreed that the Wisconsin outcome could prompt Maine Republicans to target public workers’ collective bargaining rights if they retain legislative majorities in Augusta. However, he rejected Chaison’s argument that Wisconsin demonstrated the weakness of organized labor.  

“What happened in Wisconsin invigorated the labor movement,” Grant said.

It also appears to have invigorated LePage and other Republicans. The governor said Wednesday that Wisconsin showed that unions in Wisconsin “overplayed their card.”

“It’s one thing to say that you don’t like a governor’s policies,” he said. “It’s a totally different thing to try to throw him (Walker) out with cheap political pranks.”

Chiason predicted more bold talk from more Republicans. And, he said, more self-doubt for organized labor.

“A lot of them are saying now, if this could happen in Wisconsin, what’s going to happen here?” he said.

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@mainetoday.com

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