A group of Democratic Wisconsin lawmakers blocked passage of a sweeping anti-union bill Thursday, refusing to show up for a vote and then abruptly leaving the state in an effort to force Republicans to the negotiating table.
As ever-growing throngs of protesters filled the Capitol for a third day, the 14 Democrats disappeared around noon, just as the Senate was about to begin debating the measure, which would end a half-century of collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
An estimated 25,000 protesters waved signs, surrounded a government official’s home, hurled epithets, shut down dozens of schools, and taunted leaders with raucous chants.
Scenes like that have filled the airwaves in recent weeks — but this time, the turmoil is in Madison, Wis., not Cairo or Yemen.
GOP Gov. Scott Walker, the target of the protests, has been in office only about six weeks. That’s been enough time to become enemy No. 1 as far as Wisconsin’s public-employee unions are concerned.
The latest twist in the expanding controversy over Walker’s move to reduce union influence came when the entire Democratic portion of the state's Senate literally fled the state to avoid doing their constitutionally mandated duties. The Democrats are attempting to block what Walker calls his “budget repair bill.”
The 19 Republicans in Wisconsin’s Senate need at least one Democrat to be present in order to reach a quorum.
Some media reports say the AWOL senators actually left the state altogether.
State officials responded by dispatching law officers on Thursday afternoon to track down the missing Democrats, who went on the lam in a bid to thwart Walker’s austerity bill.
Bryan Kennedy, a union president who represents 17,000 workers, called Walker’s budget adjustment bill “a dark day for our state.” He warned it could unravel “more than 50 years of labor peace in the state of Wisconsin.”
The media is having fun with the Mubarak comparisons. “No word yet on whether protesters will topple Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker,” quipped one DailyCaller scribe.
This week, Walker has drawn the wrath of President Barack Obama — twice.
His first run-in with Obama involved Walker’s “thanks but no thanks” rejection of $810 million in federal funds for a high-speed rail project between Madison and Milwaukee. Walker projected that the rail line would cost Wisconsin in the long run, and turned the money down. In response, Obama blasted him as “short-sighted.”
Obama also called Walker’s bid to curtail public-worker collective bargaining “an assault” on unions, and implied that Walker is “demonizing” public employees.
Walker replies that he’s simply dealing with reality: Wisconsin, he says, is broke.
“We must take immediate action to ensure fiscal stability in our state,” Walker announced.
The legislation pending in the Badger State, where Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, would restrict public-sector unions to negotiating annual salaries for state employees. Wage hikes would reflect only jumps in the consumer price index. Also, union members would vote annually to certify the union’s representation.
Firefighters, police, and state troopers would be exempt from the labor changes, but prison guards would be affected. Walker also plans to require state workers to pitch in about 6 percent of their salaries to cover their pension plan expenses, and would more than double their health insurance contributions from 5.8 to 12.6 percent.
Republicans say these additional burdens reflect private-sector trends that are even more severe.
Be that as it may, teachers are riled up. In Madison, scores of them called in sick so they could protest the austerity moves. Walker has advised the National Guard to be on the alert in case demonstrators try to interfere with vital state services.
The alternative to his proposal, Walker says, is to furlough 12,000 state and local workers — out of a total workforce of 175,000. Either way, Wisconsin must offset $3.6 billion in red ink.
If all that turmoil seems like quite a track record after fewer than 60 days in office, perhaps it should come as no surprise. After all, Walker, the 43-year-old husband and father of two, ran on platform of fiscal reform.
Of course, a lot of politicians do that. What’s got Wisconsin’s public employees in turmoil is that Walker, unlike the others, is actually following through on his pledges.
Walker, the former county executive for the Milwaukee area, is ideally suited to persuade the Legislature to go along with his plans. From 1994 to 2002, he served in Wisconsin’s state Assembly.
Nor is he likely to be dissuaded by professorial consultants’ multiple degrees. An evangelical Christian, Walker attended Marquette University from 1986 to 1990, but left before getting his degree in order to take a job with IBM.
Getting a good job, he later said, seemed like the primary purpose of attending college anyway. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Walker is the first Wisconsin governor in 64 years not to hold a college degree.
Walker had assumed office when he began bruising egos in neighboring Illinois.
When the Land of Lincoln doubled its tax rate rather than embrace the sort of austerity measures Walker now proposes, he jumped at the opportunity. He announced that he’d be visiting Illinois businesses to invite them to “escape to Wisconsin” by relocating.
“Wisconsin is open for business,” he said. “In these challenging times while Illinois is raising taxes, we are lowering them.”
To say the public employee unions in Wisconsin are irate over Walker’s policies would be an understatement. Some of his foes have taken to calling him “mini-Mubarak.” Filmmaker Michael Moore posted a note on his webite that declares: “Down with dictators!”
And Washington Post Op-Ed columnist Harold Meyerson, in a reference to the coup in Egypt, labeled Walker “the cheesehead pharaoh of the Middle West.”
Of course, the political zeitgeist is such that at least one straight-shooting governor, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, has demonstrated that battling the unions over state finances can bolster a politician's popularity with the voters.
Like Christie, Walker seems to have a knack for signaling that it’s no longer business as usual in his state.
His first day on the job, he called for a special session of the Legislature to consider measures to spur job creation.
And this week, Walker announced that his Feb. 22 budget address to a joint session of the Legislature will take place not at the Capitol, but rather at an employee-owned manufacturer of livestock feed.
“I’m giving my budget address outside of the capitol to highlight the goal of my administration, ensuring Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs by the end of my first term,” he explained.
Whether Walker can implement his impressive reforms remains to be seen. But if he can, he may follow Christie’s assent to national political prominence.
Union proponents are concerned there could be ominous fallout if Walker wins in Wisconsin.
It may encourage other states considering legislation to rein in the unions that exact unrealistic, expensive benefits from politicians who know they’ll need their votes come re-election time.
Meyerson sees a political motive.
“Newly elected Republican governors, however, may reach the same conclusion Walker did and use the recession-induced fiscal crisis to achieve a partisan political objective: Removing unions, the most potent force in the Democrats' electoral operation, from the landscape,” he says.
Stanford labor law professor William B. Gould IV, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, tells The New York Times that he’s alarmed by the precedent as well.
“I think it’s quite possible that if they’re successful in doing this, a lot of other Republican governors will emulate this.”
That’s the other comparison to the Middle East: If Walker’s push to restore solvency in Wisconsin works, the idea may spread to neighboring regions — just like the pro-liberty protests under way in the Middle East.
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