MADISON, Wis — The high-stakes fight in Wisconsin over union rights is about more than pay and benefits in the public sector. It could have far-reaching effects on electoral politics in this and other states by helping solidify Republican power for years, experts said Monday.
While Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to wipe out collective bargaining rights for most public employees has galvanized Democrats and union members in opposition, the GOP could benefit long-term by crippling a key source of campaign funding and volunteers for Democrats.
"It would be a huge landscape-altering type of action, and it would tilt the scales significantly in favor of the Republicans," said Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which has long tracked union involvement in Wisconsin elections. "This is a national push, and it's being simultaneously pushed in a number of states. I think Wisconsin is moving the fastest and most aggressively so far."
The National Education Association, which represents 3.2 million workers, said teachers' collective bargaining rights are also being targeted by proposals in Ohio, Idaho, Indiana and other states.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, said Monday lawmakers should pass a proposal to bar public employees from negotiating health insurance benefits.
The Wisconsin plan strikes at a key Democratic Party constituency by eliminating the mandatory union dues teachers and other public workers are required to pay. The plan would take away the ability of most municipal and state employees to bargain any condition of employment beyond their base salaries — including benefits, work schedules and overtime pay.
Public safety workers, including police officers, firefighters and state troopers, would keep their rights under the plan. Those unions endorsed Walker in his campaign for governor last year, but he said they were exempted because he did not want to jeopardize public safety if they walked off the job.
Nancy MacLean, a labor historian at Duke University, said eliminating unions would do to the Democratic Party what getting rid of socially conservative churches would do to Republicans. She called unions "the most important mass membership, get-out-the vote wing of the Democratic Party."
"It's stunning partisan calculation on the governor's part, and really ugly," she said.
Walker has denied political motivations, saying his proposal is about cutting state and local spending for years to come. But in an interview with the Associated Press last week as protests raged inside the Capitol, he acknowledged his plan to allow workers to opt out of paying their dues could cripple unions.
Combined with proposals to require voters to show identification, end election-day voter registration and redraw legislative boundaries, Wisconsin Republicans could solidify their power if the anti-union bill passes, said David Canon, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist.
Arguably more important than their spending is union-organized volunteer work manning phone banks to help Democrats, going door-to-door to get voters out and mobilizing their members to vote, he said.
"It adds up to something that would fundamentally shift the nature of partisan politics in Wisconsin for a decade, whether or not they intended to or not," he said. "The stakes are very high. Everyone is viewing this as a test case for the nation."