As Wisconsin’s Scott Walker was being feted by the right after fending off an extraordinary union-led attempt to recall him as governor, disappointed progressives began to point fingers [see “How the Wisconsin Uprising Got Hijacked,” by Andy Kroll on, and Doug Henwood on “Walker’s victory, un-sugar-coated”]. Much of the Monday-morning quarterbacking on the recall effort focused on how labor, once again, had thrown its precious assets into a Democratic Party fight and emerged with nothing to show for it but depleted coffers (less $18 million) and a demoralized base. This was the familiar giant sucking sound of electoral politics draining the life out of another promising social movement.

That reading contains a grain of truth, but it is far too simple. Without sugarcoating the outcome—or blaming it solely on the Koch brothers et al., who swamped the state with $47 million to defend Walker—it’s possible to glean from the Wisconsin loss some deeper lessons about how labor can advance its agenda more effectively in the electoral arena and beyond.

The most sobering statistic of the day, worth dwelling on for what it reveals about labor’s real failures in this campaign, is that 38 percent of union households voted for Walker and against Democrat Tom Barrett, who had lost to Walker in 2010. While it is true that Barrett did not wage the campaign unions wanted, largely skirting Walker’s frontal assault on collective bargaining, there’s no reason unions couldn’t have moved their members to share with their families the fact that this election was about their most basic right to have their voices heard. This would have entailed the sort of internal organizing that most unions have all but abandoned, having either eliminated their education departments altogether or narrowed their mission to teaching members how to read their contracts. It would have meant confronting head-on the potent conservative caricatures of public workers, countering the right’s divide-and-conquer strategy by building solidarity among all union members—public, private and the growing number in between whose employers are nominally private but depend on government contracts. Such a campaign could also have made clear just how much is at stake for working- and middle-class people, union and nonunion alike, in the right’s assault on public institutions.

Many labor activists are acutely aware of the need for this kind of organizing. They also know it takes time and money and that the Republican onslaught pushes them into a defensive posture that is often impossible to avoid. In Ohio, after things took a nasty turn, unions and their allies beat back Governor John Kasich’s collective bargaining assault last November—a costly but important win. Likewise, unions must go to the mat to protect their rights from further erosion in Indiana after the passage of right-to-work legislation; in Maine and New Hampshire pro-labor forces have managed to stop similar bills. In Michigan, the United Auto Workers had a bright idea: seize the initiative and enshrine the right to bargain collectively in the state Constitution. That goes before voters in November.

Republicans are nearing the crescendo of a forty-year war on organized labor. But unions can’t rely on all Democrats to protect them. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo convened a committee to attack the teachers unions; Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also took aim at the teachers, who are now poised to strike.

Yes, unions should do politics better: building independent movements with other progressives on core issues of economic inequality and injecting them into the electoral sphere. But they don’t have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines.