MILWAUKEE - The recall machinery at the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association was revving up for a final push to evict a governor.
A busy group of retired teachers was assembling yard signs, classroom teachers were filing in after the Friday afternoon bell to write postcards to parents, a call center was coming to life and leaders were using a cluttered "war room" to plan the weekend's door-knocking schedule.
On one wall a sign read: "Losing is not an option," neatly summing up labor's attitude toward Tuesday's recall election against Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
At the tail end of an exhausting, 17-month ride, union members and their allies face a stiff challenge beyond signage and phone lists: Convincing the masses of Wisconsinites that labor's well-known war with Walker is their battle too.
"If people don't come together and stop this here in Wisconsin, we're really in trouble," said Robert Peterson, president of the Milwaukee teachers' union.
Walker inadvertently gave birth to this beehive of activity when, shortly after being sworn in last year, he unveiled and pushed through a series of strict limits on collective bargaining by public-employee unions. The move triggered a mushrooming series of responses by Democrats and union supporters, from the decamping of Democratic senators to hideouts in Illinois to the regular, noisy demonstrations by tens of thousands of protestors at the state Capitol in Madison and, finally, to this climax.
This is only the third attempted recall of a governor in U.S. history, and anti-Walkerites frame it as a fight for a foothold in the U.S. economy, which they believe is imperiled by Walker's politics and the billionaires backing him.
"This election on June 5 represents an epic battle for the union movement and for the entire middle class in America," said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
Where it started
It is fitting that the recall is occurring in Wisconsin, which, during the Depression, gave life to the government workers union that eventually became the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the country's largest public employee unions. Like the rest of the country, Wisconsin has seen declines in union membership and a gradual shift in the power base within the movement from private to public sector workers. Wisconsin union participation is now 13.3 percent of all workers, compared to 15 percent in Minnesota and a U.S. average of 11.8 percent.
The law that initially energized Walker's foes, known as Act 10, does away with the requirement that all workers pay dues or fees if their job group is represented. It requires a recertification vote for every union every year, and stiffens the margin needed to prevail. It restricts bargaining to pay increases, and only within the rate of inflation. Benefits, work rules and pensions are off the table for bargaining purposes.
The new rules, union advocates say, hollow out unions, leaving only a shell that is unable to do much for its members.
"It's like going back 45 years and starting all over again," said Martin Beil, executive director of AFSCME Council 24, representing Wisconsin state employees.
Union leaders and Walker's opponent, Democrat Tom Barrett, quote from a statement Walker made on video to a business executive early last year, before he introduced Act 10. When the executive asked Walker whether Wisconsin could become a "red state" or a "right-to-work" state, Walker said the first step would be to take on public-employee unions, "because you use divide and conquer."
The video, released this year, reinforces foes' belief that Walker's goal all along was to cripple the unions, which form a solid base for liberal Democratic organizations here and around the country. Once campaign spending limits were suspended during the recall process, the executive in the video, Diane Hendricks, gave Walker $500,000 to fight the recall effort.
Caught in the middle
James Cannon is hoping he doesn't become collateral damage in the dispute.
Days after Walker was elected in 2010, the 42-year-old electrician learned that he too would start a new job, at Talgo, a train-manufacturing and maintenance company that opened in an abandoned industrial site on Milwaukee's north side.
But one of Walker's first decisions as governor was to cancel an $810 million federal high-speed rail grant that he considered wasteful. Recently, the administration also moved to cancel a $166 million maintenance contract with Talgo.
Cannon, the union steward on the site, has lived in the neighborhood since boyhood. Back then, the site was home to a major truck frame manufacturer, and Cannon recalled seeing thousands of workers pass through during shift changes.
"I'm like, that's the place," Cannon said. "Mostly everybody in the neighborhood worked at that plant." Eventually the plant was mothballed and the site lay idle, until Talgo moved in with the promise of a new start.
Now Cannon's future is uncertain.
"Is it really going to close down at any minute, or what is really going to happen?" he asked. He recently joined Barrett, Milwaukee's mayor, at a news conference to tell the firm's story. To them, Walker's pro-jobs rhetoric rings hollow.
Going all in
However Wisconsin arrived at this point, it has become the ground on which unions and their allies launch an inspiring counter-offensive -- or suffer a dispiriting defeat and invite similar attacks from Walker admirers around the nation.
Beil said the union movement is "all in" on this fight, and has formed coalitions with community leaders, retirees, small business owners, farmers, environmental and women's groups.
"Wisconsin will send a signal that we're on this huge whirlpool to mediocrity, or will we maintain the fact that working men and women have dignity in terms of their work?" Beil said.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042