Jim Rutenberg
and Steven Greenhouse

GREEN BAY, WIS.: “Recall Walker” bumper stickers dotted the workers’ parking lot at the Georgia Pacific paper mill on Day Street one recent afternoon, proof of their union’s role in the effort to oust Gov. Scott Walker from office for his legislation limiting public employees’ bargaining rights.

But among the largest donors to Walker and his cause are the plant’s owners, the billionaire industrialists Charles G. and David H. Koch, the latter of whom has said of the recall election to be held in June: “If the unions win the recall, there will be no stopping union power.”

The recall vote in Wisconsin has been billed as a critical test of labor muscle versus corporate money.

But it is only a warm-up for a confrontation that will play out on a much larger scale during the presidential election, which both sides view as the biggest political showdown in at least 30 years between pro- and anti-union forces.

The election reflects fights in crucial battleground states across the country — Ohio and Florida, New Hampshire and Michigan — between newly elected conservative lawmakers and their business allies and the public employees’ unions they have tried to hobble in the name of recession-era austerity.

But even as the economy slowly recovers, the public-sector clash has spread into a more fundamental, high-stakes fight between pro-business groups backed by wealthy conservative donors and a broad coalition of private and public unions that portray the state fights as part of a wider move to cripple organized labor: a labor-management dispute writ large in the context of a national election.

The same national groups flooding the streets and the airwaves in Wisconsin — the Koch-supported group Americans for Prosperity on the right, the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers union on the left — are emerging as important outside supporters of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, each side empowered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Big-dollar battle

That ruling is not only giving wealthy donors like the Kochs greater options for pouring tens of millions of dollars into the presidential election.

It is also giving unions — many of them representing workers in some of the major donors’ own factories — the ability for the first time ever to spend money from union treasuries for campaigning among nonunion voters.

The combination of the squeeze on state budgets, high rates of unemployment and the conservative movement’s revived energy provided an opening for Republican efforts, often business-backed, to promote tough-on-labor legislation in key states.

Those efforts have succeeded in rolling back gains made by unions over decades, prompting vows from labor to fight back with newly engaged members shaken from self-described complacency.

“The steelworkers will be working harder this year than in 2008, because we can see what can happen,” Michael Bolton, the director of the United Steelworkers unit representing 48,000 workers in Wisconsin and Michigan — including many hundreds in Koch facilities — said in an interview last week at his offices in Menasha, Wis.

The steelworkers will be part of a broader effort that national union strategists say will fill the streets in battleground states with hundreds of thousands of their members, who will go door to door telling union colleagues — and for the first time, nonunion households — why they should vote for Obama.

The AFL-CIO’s political director, Mike Podhorzer, said his organization, which reached 25 million voters in 2008, would easily exceed that this year.

Officials for the steelworkers say it has been awkward at times to wage partisan battles against the family that owns the factories that employ them.

The union’s leaders recently agreed on a contract with Georgia Pacific that they considered fair.

But, Bolton said, that has not stopped the union from telling workers at those companies what it believes to be the goal of the Kochs and their allies.

“They want ineffective, weak unions,” he said, adding, “A lot of these bills didn’t directly affect our private-sector members, but we realize that we would be the next.”