After Wisconsin’s Recall: Rahm Emanuel’s Labor Battle

Unions are still licking their wounds over the loss in Wisconsin’s recall election. But the GOP isn’t alone in crowing. James Warren reports on Obama’s biggest ally’s looming labor fight.

Andy Manis / AP Photo

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other Democratic officials gagged at the recall victory of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But they should also be emboldened by the Republican’s humiliation of organized labor.

One can stipulate to idiosyncrasies of the vote, most notably the fact that even a significant number of Democratic union members had qualms about the fairness of the recall process. Yet many elected officials nationwide, like Emanuel, face Wisconsin-like financial pressures that place Democrats, too, on collision courses with traditional union allies.

Indeed, Emanuel was running a city council meeting Wednesday as members of the 25,000-member Chicago teachers union began voting on whether to give their leaders the right to call a strike in coming months. Such a strike, no matter how seemingly misguided, would constitute the first dramatic failure of Emanuel’s popular year-old mayoralty and climax his open combat with the union’s fumbling hierarchy.

The war between Emanuel, the maniacally disciplined “Rambo” of White House notoriety, and the union leadership is undisguised. The battle has even included dueling “f--k you’s” with union president Karen Lewis, at one City Hall get-together. A central issue is Emanuel’s call for a sharp and arbitrary lengthening of Chicago's five-and-a-half-hour school day—the shortest among major school districts in the United States.

That the union is voting right now represents a rare political miscalculation by Emanuel, a famously shrewd political operative who has generally outfoxed rivals and critics as mayor of the third-largest city. His game plan was that the union would await a fact-finder’s summertime—and likely Emanuel-friendly—report on key bargaining issues between the city and teachers before seriously mulling a walkout. The mayor would have presumably ginned up public support for that report.

The union’s smart tactical maneuvering aside, the Wisconsin vote underscores the weakened position of all labor, even if citizens tend to exhibit favorable views toward the union cop on the beat, the union firefighter down the block, or their kid’s union teacher.

Many of those same citizens believe they’ve been shafted during the recession and that nobody bailed them out. While they may theoretically support organized labor’s well-intentioned defense of its members, they increasingly discern unions to be on the wrong side of issues dealing with economics and accountability.

As one top Emanuel ally put it Wednesday, “They ask, ‘Why are those people being protected and I’m not?’”

In cities and states nationwide, similar questions are obviously being asked, especially as mountainous deficits, underfunded pensions, and sinking bond ratings are confronted.

In Illinois, key parties recently failed in the legislature to deal with a pension mess of California-like proportions. But there can be little doubt that even Democratic governors and mayors who might even painfully consider doing battle with unions, to gain both savings and efficiencies, can now use the Wisconsin legacy as a negotiating hammer.

And that hammer might well be increasingly effective in an age in which union members possess benefits that are both hard-fought but also not guaranteed to an increasing majority of those who comprise the Democratic Party.

Henry Bayer, the top public-employee union official in Illinois, conceded that Democratic politicians are less shy about targeting his Democratic-leaning members. He specifically cited New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn “in going after unions,” including a Quinn proposal to weaken bargaining rights for some state workers.

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“Will they now get more bold? Maybe,” said Bayer, who heads the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Illinois. “It may not be the same scale as Walker. But it’s the same playbook.”

Labor’s silver linings seemed few in the often hyperbolic post-recall analyses. “Too many morons want to make global conclusions based on a very unique situation,” said Eric Adelstein, a national Democratic consultant based in Chicago, who argues that President Obama will still easily take Wisconsin in November.

For unions, his initial take was, “I was always told to not corner a wounded animal. They have little to lose and are in a foul mood.”

As he spoke, the Chicago schools were in session and the teachers were voting.