On Brat Fest: Union backers need to start using their heads

The controversy over collective bargaining has reached new heights of intensity – so intense that a key fundraiser for local charities is now threatened. I refer, of course, to plans for an alternative Brat Fest because the original World's Largest Brat Fest, put on by Metcalfe's Markets, features Johnsonville brats. There probably have been more foolish ways to protest, but this one deserves to be in the conversation.

Johnsonville has apparently joined a long list of corporate pariahs. Why? Because members of the company's executive suite donated money to Scott Walker's gubernatorial campaign, and as we know, Gov. Walker has proposed curtailing collective bargain power among public employees.

Walker definitely deserves some kind of electoral sanction for that, especially since he did not campaign on stripping collective bargaining power. The most obvious comeuppance would be for his party to lose its majority in the State Senate as part of a recall effort that is now underway.

But to accomplish this, pro-union forces will have to appeal to a statewide audience, meaning they have to think beyond Madison's boundaries. Protesting a company, especially in a very public way, because some members of its management donated to Walker is a counterproductive way to do it.

Johnsonville, headquartered in Sheboygan Falls, employs about 1,300 people. Need I point out in a population sample of that size, at least 40% of those Johnsonville employees probably supported Tom Barrett for governor? The state senator who represents that district, Republican Joe Leibham, is not subject to one of the 16 recalls now underway, but that 40% might come in handy in any serious attempt to recall the governor himself.

As business entities, corporations are wise to either not contribute to political campaigns, or (if permitted) give equally to both sides to promote an open debate. But their individual employees should be able to donate as they see fit.

We've already had one electoral test of how the collective bargaining controversy is playing out statewide – the Supreme Court race between incumbent Justice David Prosser and challenger Joanne Kloppenburg – and the pro-union coalition managed to blow it. Kloppenburg was cruising to victory heading into the last week, but her refusal to disavow a controversial third-party television advertisement, which claimed Prosser failed to prosecute a case of clergy abuse in the late 1970s, was a mistake. The abuse victim asked Kloppenburg to disavow the assertion and when she refused, he went on television to point it out.

Madisonians know Kloppenburg to be a fine woman who cares about crime victims, but her refusal to simply disavow an ad, put on not by her campaign but by the Greater Wisconsin Committee, looked bad to a statewide audience. All the pro-union forces had to do was link Prosser to Walker, which they had been doing to good effect, and Ms. Kloppenburg would have cruised to victory. Instead, her lead melted on the final weekend and, pending the results of a potential recount, a Walker ally is likely to remain on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Again, the failure to play it smart could prove costly if the recount does not go Kloppenburg's way.

The fact that Johnsonville is donating about 200,000 brats to Brat Fest and won't make a dime on this also means that the only entities that will be hurt here are local charities, and possibly, Metcalfe's Markets. That would indeed be unfair because Metcalfe's is an outstanding corporate citizen whose chief executive, Tim Metcalfe, continues to hold this event to give something back to a community he feels blessed to be a part of. Brat Fest has raised nearly $1 million for local charities, and the Metcalfe family deserves our thanks, not our scorn.

And the thanks Mr. Metcalfe will apparently get in some circles is to be portrayed as some sort of villain. Tim, now you know the meaning of the phrase "No good deed ever goes unpunished."

Back to the broader point. There are 300,000 state and local public employees who would be impacted by the loss of collective bargaining. As I've stated before, focusing on the value they provide to all of us – Democrat, Republican, and independents – is the best way to give the Senate a makeover. Alienating businesses, and the people they employ, and doing so in a very public way, runs the risk of failure in an endeavor, multiple recalls, that will be challenging to pull off under the best circumstances.

I hope both the traditional Brat Fest and the alternative event raise lots of money for worthy causes, but pro-union folks have to start thinking beyond the Dane County box. Let your emotions provide the energy. Let your heads counter Gov. Walker in more effective ways.

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