WASHINGTON - Labor officials said Wednesday that the results in Wisconsin's unprecedented recall elections should send a stern warning to any elected official who might seek to curb collective bargaining rights.
But in toppling only two of the six lawmakers they targeted, some observers said the outcome could be a sign that labor's political clout isn't what it used to be.
Unions celebrated the ouster of two Republican state senators who supported Gov. Scott Walker's bill to curb collective bargaining rights for most state employees. Despite the historic wins for Wisconsin Democrats in Tuesday's voting, they still fell short of their goal to knock off at least three Republicans so they could take majority control of the state Senate and be able to block Walker and the Republicans' conservative agenda.
The outcome falls somewhere between a victory and a loss for beleaguered unions, said Doug Schoen, a Democratic political strategist.
"Organized labor certainly didn't lose any ground," Schoen said. "They didn't fundamentally alter the political environment, but they sent a strong message to Republicans that what they are doing is not without peril."
That's the silver lining union officials were spinning Wednesday.
Unions plan to take the fight to Ohio, where voters will decide in November whether to repeal the state's new collective bargaining law. A spokesman for a group that wants to keep the law in place called the two election wins in Wisconsin "meaningless."
"Labor got into this with the goal of shifting the balance of power and they failed," said Jason Mauk, spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, a group defending the new law. "There's no other way to read it. They spent millions of dollars in hopes of sending a message and it fell flat."
Given the all-out effort, some labor experts said the outcome has to be considered a disappointment.
"If there was strong sentiment against what were really draconian measures taken by the Wisconsin legislature, the unions should have done better," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "What happened in Wisconsin was an attack on unions as organizations."