Free Markets, Free People

Who is winning the public relations fight in Wisconsin?

Rasmussen says it’s Republican governor Scott Walker:

A sizable number of voters are following new Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s showdown with unionized public employees in his state, and nearly half side with the governor.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 48% of Likely U.S. Voters agree more with the Republican governor in his dispute with union workers. Thirty-eight percent (38%) agree more with the unionized public employees, while 14% are undecided.


Thirty-eight percent (38%) of voters think teachers, firemen and policemen should be allowed to go on strike, but 49% disagree and believe they should not have that right. Thirteen percent (13%) are not sure.

And finally:

Public employee unions have long been strong supporters, financially and otherwise, of Democratic Party candidates, so it’s no surprise that 68% of Democrats support the union workers in the Wisconsin dispute. Sixty-eight percent (68%) of Republicans and 56% of voters not affiliated with either of the major political parties side with the governor.  [emphasis mine]

The bold line is key.  I find nothing particularly surprising about either of the percentages from Democrats polled or Republicans.  But again this indicates that the Democrats have lost the independent vote and lost it significantly.  Public opinion, based on this poll, is definitely with the Governor.

What is playing out in Wisconsin has been recognized by unions as a hill they must die on or suffer the probably irreversible consequences of losing political power.   They also understand the potential reaches far outside Wisconsin.  If Wisconsin goes, others could follow:

“Some of the labor people are saying, ‘It’s the beginning of the fight back,’” said a top labor official. “But if the labor movement rallies and gets run over in Wisconsin, it opens [the gates] in every state” for governors to start pushing harder to curtail labor rights.

“Not every state’s going to roll back collective bargaining,” the official — who, like many, spoke off the record to avoid undermining the protests — added, but said it could open the gates for union losses on various fronts, like benefits.

Don’t be fooled – this isn’t just about “benefits”.  It is about power, politics and money.  The mix of those three have given public sector unions a synergy that has allowed them, in many places, to hand pick Democratic representatives, have them elected and then have them do the union’s business.  It is a pernicious and non-competitive arrangement that is finally, because of the financial downturn, coming to light.

But the unions have a problem.  They haven’t been able to sell the emotional argument (benefits) and they certainly aren’t about to try to explain the real reason they’re fighting this (power and money).   So what they’re having to deal with the the public’s perception, formed over many years in Wisconsin, that the public sector costs too much, has to be cut and that includes public sector employee benefits as well:

But this fight isn’t at the time or place of the unions’ choosing. Hostility to public-sector workers, including teachers, is at an all-time high amid a recession and a new national mania for curbing the tide of fiscal red ink. Walker appears to have a firm legislative majority on his side.

And labor is struggling to explain — and convince a voting public that has inched away from the concept of unions as a bedrock American institution over the years — that while it’s willing to be flexible on Walker’s demands for cost control, his attempts to change the rules governing public unions are a matter of institutional life and death and union principle. Labor hopes the public will see Walker’s attempt to use a budget gap to reshape labor-management relations as an overreach. But for many people watching from afar, the details of what Walker wants to accomplish have gotten lost, and the fight is playing out as yet another in a long string of recent state-based brawls over the high cost of the public sector.

So public sector unions have a heck of a PR problem not only in Wisconsin, but if the Rasmussen poll is to be believed, throughout the US.  Nationally that could mean this:

Bradley Tusk, a former Illinois deputy governor and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s 2009 campaign manager, said that if Walker succeeds in the fight, “this will be portrayed as a major change toward fiscal sanity and protecting taxpayers.”

“The average voter will never feel any pain from it,” he added, “so the high ground shifts away from labor. That puts Obama and other Democrats in the position of being forced further to the left, or moving more toward the GOP position and risking losing support from labor. … This almost creates some of the problems that a primary forces on the challenger.”

And the union’s “winning strategy” to counter that?

As a broader issue, in other states, national union officials think they’ve found a winning strategy in shifting the fight off government and slamming Wall Street, armed with repeated polls that show anti-financial industry sentiment at an all-time high.

Apparently, however, union officials don’t understand that it isn’t an “either/or” situation.  The public blames both for different reasons.  But more importantly, the public realizes “what is, is” and you deal with it.  Whether they believe (or not) that Wall Street is to blame, that doesn’t change the fact that the problem (budget deficit) has to be confronted and solved and part of the solution has to be borne by public sector employees.

Norman Adler, a longtime lobbyist for public sector labor unions in New York, says the unions have to fight – that this is not something they can walk away from.  And, if they lose in Wisconsin, they “have to reconfigure their tactics and move on.”  But, he says:

“Labor pretty much lost the PR fight a number of years ago,” he said, suggesting the true targets of opportunity at the moment are state lawmakers who are “on the fence,” and can be swayed because they’re worried about getting elected back home. “And I think their position is that they have to show political muscle here.”

Translation: this could get even nastier.

Watch for it.



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19 Responses to Who is winning the public relations fight in Wisconsin?

  • The Wisconsin political blitzkrieg on Gov. Walker was not a spontaneous eruption. It is now clear that it was a highly organized operation planned in Washington, D.C., to unleash a national counterattack on the gains made by Republicans and Tea Party activists. Getting OFA and the president to act in close coordination was itself no small feat. The plan included busing in thousands of government employees, arranging for Democratic lawmakers to flee to an adjoining state, flying speakers and political organizers into Madison, organizing thousands to leave their jobs in public safety and in classrooms, and staging rallies inside and outside the statehouse. They even enticed sympathetic doctors to draft  bogus doctor excuses for government workers.
    If that story gets more exposure…and it will have to come from new media…the answer to your question is a slam-dunk.

  • The White House sees defeat ahead, so they are now distancing themselves from the loss …

    WASHINGTON — The battle in Wisconsin over public employee unions has left President Obama facing a tricky balance between showing solidarity with longtime political supporters and projecting a message in favor of deep spending cuts to reduce the debt.
    Over the weekend, the White House and Democratic Party officials pushed back against criticism from Republicans that Mr. Obama and his political network were meddling in the Wisconsin dispute.
    Administration officials said Sunday that the White House had done nothing to encourage the demonstrations in Wisconsin — nor was it doing so in Ohio, Florida and other states where new Republican governors are trying to make deep cuts to balance their budgets.

    There is plenty to show the White House involvement, so their attempts to put distance from this “failure in the making” just shows they know this fight will be lost.

    • Obama’s outspokenness about the labor battle in Wisconsin offers a glimmer of hope that he might lead the fight for what many Americans, not just Democrats, care about — from job creation to an energy plan to an attack on the deficit that brackets the high-end Bush-era tax cuts with serious Medicare/Medicaid reform and further strengthening of the health care law. Will he do so? The answer to that question is at least as mysterious as the identity of whatever candidate the desperate G.O.P. finds to run against him.

      Seems like Frank Rich didn’t get the White House e-mail that signalled the start of the retreat.

  • They plan to blame Wall Street? Don’t they know that comes right back to Obama?
    They complain about bail-outs? Don’t they know that GM got a bail out for the UAW?
    Complaining about your wages and compensation during tough economic times when a lot of us would love their job security alone let alone benefits package is not a winning strategy.
    Also note that 32%of Democrats don’t support the Unions…that’s telling.

    • Also note that 32%of Democrats don’t support the Unions…that’s telling.
      It is telling.  A few years ago, long before the Wisconsin debate, a very liberal friend of mine surprised me when he said that he believed that unions were not necessary anymore.  But recently, another friend of mine, who is a college professor at a public university, suggested that what is happening in Wisconsin is akin to the cultural revolution of the sixties – she suggested that the governor of WI might even be impeached.  I told her that she is crazy.
      Two friends, same age.  One works in the private sector, the other in the public sector.  There is an amazing disconnect.
      I would suggest that if this dispute involved a union for the private sector, the numbers would be a bit more favorable to the union, but not much.  But since this is involving the public sector, I don’t think they would garner that much sympathy.
      On another note, I find it upsetting that a lot of the discussion, including polls, seems to lump teachers unions in with police and firefighters unions.  Yet, in Wisconsin, police and firefighters are not included in the current legislation stripping them of some of their “rights.”
      First, why are the police and firefighters unions not included in the legislation?  And second, why is the discussion about public sector unions including both as if they were?

      • The first responder unions should be included in the legislation, of course. But also, they are much more sympathetic, since they put their lives on the line, and that’s likely the reason they are not covered by the legislation.

      • I don’t have the answers to your questions reg. public safety types, BUT…
        If you look at LEOs and firefighters, their salaries are WAY less than teachers.  This suggests a disparity in “bargaining power”…such as the ability to strike.
        Personally, I do not find ANY justification for public-sector unions.  Govt. employees are protected by civil service law, among other things (i.e., they are not subject to market forces).
        Good post, BTW!

  • The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

    Interesting argument, public employee unions are a check on “America’s oligarchy.”
    Nay. I don’t believe in conspiracies.  UFOs maybe, but not conspiracies.

    • For what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.

      That’s Krugman’s madness d’jure.  It looks like OLIGARCHY is the magic Collectivist word ‘o the day…

  • Methinks it much easier to cast Climate Change Deniers as a check on “America’s oligarchy” than public employee unions.

  • The trick will be to see if the MOB holds the Wisconsin legislature hostage, preventing them to do business in their own capital as they did Friday.
    IF the legislature comes together, they CAN push a bunch of stuff the Flee party may wish to have some say about, making them find coming home more shiny.
    If they don’t, the GOP is able to rule the roost with NO input from Deemocrat senators.
    If the MOB wants to stay put and threaten the elected representatives, at some point this will get ugly.

    Newly elected state Sen. Leah Vukey, a Tea Party favorite, told The Daily Caller the Senate could separate the removal of collective bargaining rights for state and local employees from the spending bill if the Democrats refuse to return. Vukey said she’s not yet sure if Wisconsin’s Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald will so so, but said it’s a possibility.
    “All the collective bargaining stuff could be done as a separate bill,” Vukey said in a phone interview. “I’m not certain if we’re going to do that at this point.”

    • I’m sure the Governor’s Terrorism Task Force is up to the job.

      • Yeah, but we ARE talking about PR.  There could be a time when public opinion will support a confrontation, but THAT is a big risk…and what the Collective is counting on.
        When you go to outlawry, you are daring the authorities to enforce the law.  The Collective knows that well.

  • Unions are the last thing standing between the serf/lord economy the Republicans would like to bring back and the America we’ve gotten comfortable with since FDR.

    Republicans generally see themselves sittin’ on their verandas, sippin’ mint juleps and watching their field-hand serfs work their fields down below.

  • “I’m proud to be here with people who understand that it’s more than just sending an email to get you going. Every once and awhile you need to get out on the streets and get a little bloody when necessary,” Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Ma.) told a crowd in Boston on Tuesday rallying in solidarity for Wisconsin union members.

    This pretty much puts the final nail in the “New Civility”