Regardless of your political stripes, one thing is clear: Public employee unions in Wisconsin aren’t the political force they were four years ago.
The main reason, according to both sides is, Act 10, the controversial law passed by Republicans in 2011 which limited collective bargaining for most public workers.
“We saw a significant drop off in membership,” said Marty Beil of the Wisconsin State Employees Union. He says Act 10 had a drastic impact on public unions across the state. Those unions have typically supported Democrats.
Just how much did Act 10 impact public employee unions? Just take the Wisconsin State Employees Union for example. Before Act 10, there were 20,000 state employees who were members. Now there are fewer than 10,000. That had a huge impact on the union’s budget. It went from $5.5 million before Act 10 down to $2.5 million a year.
When asked if the drop in membership will translate into a drop in political activity, Beil replied, “I think what it’ll translate into is we will do our political activity a little differently than we did it in the past.”
Beil says rather than donating to individual candidates and campaigns, the unions will put more energy behind-the-scenes, in things like get-out-the-vote efforts.
“You will see AFSCME and some of the other unions’ political arms in a much more aggressive on the ground campaign than we ever have had before,” Beil said.
When asked what he expected from state and local public employee unions this fall, Republican strategist Mark Graul said, “I think they’ll still be very active. Maybe their members are not funding their activities at the same rate they used to. That doesn’t mean they’re not going to be politically active.”
But it won’t be anything like year’s past.
“There’s an imbalance that’s been created,” said Mike McCabe from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group which tracks political spending. He says Act 10 has put Democrats at a disadvantage when it comes to raising money.
“It’s not a good thing to have one side have a distinct advantage when it comes to money,” McCabe said. “And it’s not a good thing for one kind of interest to be able to blow other interests out of the water when it comes to money.”
That may be true on the state level. But Wisconsin’s big elections bring in big money from all kinds of national groups, including public employee unions.
In fact, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, spending from outside groups was pretty even during the recent recall elections. Republican-leaning groups spent $39.8 million while groups backing Democrats, including unions, spent $35.9 million.
National unions are talking about spending big in Wisconsin again this year.
“I think they’ll be some of the larger international unions will be involved,” Beil said. “Wisconsin became the battleground two years ago and those national unions haven’t forgotten that.”
AFSMCE’s national office and the AFL-CIO both refused to make someone available for an interview for our story.
But in an interview with the New York Times, AFSCME president Lee Saunders, who also sits on the political committee of the AFL-CIO, said, “We’re going to support the workers and our allies who stood up to Scott Walker.” And, “We’ll be moving into the state to try to defeat him.”
McCabe says he’s not convinced that will happen.
“Maybe national unions will jump in. Maybe they’ll try to flood this state with a lot of money. They’re certainly making a lot of noise about wanting to do that,” McCabe said. “The real question is whether they have the capacity to counter some of the big money interests that come in on the other side.”
“They’re not going to spend money just because they don’t like Scott Walker or Act 10. They’re going to spend money because they think they can win,” Graul said. “But I think predictions on what’s going to be happening in September and October, making predictions like that in March are kind of silly at this point.”
We likely will know more by September when the campaigns are in full swing.