Wisconsin Senate Democrats can come out of hiding. Yesterday evening, an all-Republican Senate passed by an 18-1 margin a plan by GOP Governor Scott Walker to restrict public-sector union bargaining rights. The bill, stalled by Democrats who fled the state to block a mandatory quorum, today went to the GOP-controlled Assembly, which approved the measure a few hours ago by 53-42. The Assembly had passed the measure in late February as an attachment to a larger budget bill. Republican Senators reintroduced a pared-down freestanding version, minus budgetary features, to get around the quorum requirement. In response, protestors jammed the galleries at the Statehouse in Madison to boo. Democrats are vowing recalls and court action. So is the AFL-CIO. And a few outliers are vowing assassinations. In other words, we’re just getting warmed up.
The Battle for Wisconsin is far more Wild West showdown than soap opera. Back on February 17, as many as 25,000 protestors, led by union activists, occupied or surrounded the Capitol Building to intimidate the legislature from holding a vote on Governor Walker’s austerity plan to close a projected $3.6 billion budget gap over the next two years. Democratic Senators, outnumbered 19 to 14 and knowing a constitutionally-mandated quorum of 20 (i.e., three-fifths of all senators) was needed to hold a budget-related vote, fled the state en masse the same day, initially, for Rockford, Illinois, and then for destinations unknown. Governor Walker called out state police to locate the AWOL legislators. While Senate was brought to a standstill, the State Assembly on early Friday morning, February 25, passed the legislation by a 51-17 margin. Yesterday’s Senate vote all but ensures the bill will become law, barring dramatic action.
Democratic lawmakers and their allies in organized labor and other segments of the Left have made clear they want dramatic action to counteract the plan’s “anti-worker” provisions. As National Legal and Policy Center noted last month, the Republican plan contains a number of measures designed to curb union bargaining power and taxpayer liability. The package would require public employees to: 1) contribute 5.8 percent of wages or salary to retirement plans, up from zero for most employees; 2) pay for 12.6 percent of total health care coverage, up from about 6 percent; 3) limit annual pay raises to increases in the Consumer Price Index; 4) enter only into single-year contracts; and 5) forgo collective bargaining rights over benefits and working conditions. In addition, the measure would require annual union recertification and would end the practice of mandatory dues deductions from paychecks.
The measure triggered frenzied opposition. While Senate Democrats were high-tailing it out of the state, thousands of demonstrators descended upon the State Capitol, any number of them carrying placards with a Hitler moustache superimposed over a photo of Governor Walker. By that Saturday, nearly 70,000 people turned out, most in opposition. Republican supporters received anonymous death threats. The governor and his supporters, asserted Democrats, were about to take working men and women of Wisconsin back to the dark ages. But how anti-labor was the plan? It wouldn’t apply to public safety employees – police, firefighter and state troopers. It would rule out the possibility of layoffs. It wouldn’t affect existing contracts. And despite the sacrifices entailed, it would leave public-sector employees better off than a great many equivalent full-time private-sector employees, especially with respect to benefits.
Governor Walker hasn’t seemed cut from the same cloth as Adolf Hitler. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, he explained: “We’re broke. Like nearly every other state across the country, we have a major deficit.” Suggestions that his plan was politically-motivated were false, he said, noting that police and firefighters, though exempt, did not support him. “Overall what we’re talking about is something that’s incredibly fair – it applies to me and my family, to my cabinet, the legislature as well as all the other workers at the state and local government level.” Key Democrats, however, attributed the bill to malevolent intent. The standstill continued. The governor threatened to mail out pink slips to 1,500 state employees after 15 days. Yesterday the turning point occurred. Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, whereabouts unknown, sent the governor a letter indicating his unwillingness to negotiate any further. In response, GOP members stripped the bill of its fiscal provisions, thus bypassing quorum requirements, and held a successful floor vote. The three-week logjam is over – for now.
Democrats, at least the ones who can be located, are livid. “The vote does nothing to create jobs, does nothing to strengthen our state, and shows finally and utterly that this was never about anything but raw political power,” remarked Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate. “We now put our total focus on recalling the eligible Republicans who voted for this bill. And we also begin counting the days remaining before Scott Walker is himself eligible for recall.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka likewise is planning to take the conflict to a new level. He proclaimed: “Scott Walker didn’t win. It’s not over until we say it’s over.” He added that he definitely will be involved in efforts to recall elected GOP officials, claiming violations of state law.
Meanwhile, Republicans should take seriously threats of mass assassination. A rambling, anonymous, ungrammatical e-mail sent to Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, immediately following the vote promised death and destruction. Here is how the letter began:
I want to make this perfectly clear. Because of your actions today and in the past couple of weeks I and the group of people that are working with me have decided that we’ve had enough. We feel that you and your republican dictators have to die. This is how it’s going to happen: I as well as many others know where you and your family live. It’s a matter of public records. We have all planned to assault you by arriving at your house and putting a nice little bullet in your head. However, this isn’t enough. We also have decided that this may not be enough to send the message. So we have built several bombs that we have placed in various locations around the areas in which we know that you frequent. This includes your house, your car, the state capitol, and well I won’t tell you all of them because that’s just no fun.
One supposes it’s also no fun for Fitzgerald and other Wisconsin Republicans to receive death threats such as these. State Senator Randy Hopper, R-Fond du Lac, earlier had reported similar threats against colleagues. It’s a victory for political courage that the Senate held a floor vote.
Enemies of Governor Walker’s plan may have to take their campaign out of state. On Wednesday, March 2, the Ohio Senate approved by a razor-thin 17-16 margin, with six Republicans voting against, a measure advanced by Republican Gov. John Kasich to curb the power of the state’s public employee unions. The bill, though retaining union collective bargaining provisions, would extend an existing strike ban to include teachers. It also would block binding arbitration, giving final decisions in contract disputes to the state.
Union chieftains are treating the showdowns in Wisconsin and other states as indicative of a war against labor. Emboldened by the 2010 election results, they charge, Republicans are trying to eviscerate hard-won protections America’s working families. Even President Obama, if in measured words, likened the Wisconsin proposal to “an assault on unions.” But aggressive language won’t erase the reality of budget deficits which likely will get worse over the long run, thanks to exorbitant benefit packages. According to preliminary Bureau of Labor Statistics data, state and local government employees on average in 2010 received total compensation of $39.60 an hour, compared to the private-sector full-time employee equivalent average of $27.42 an hour. Public-sector wages were 35 percent higher, while public-sector benefits were 69 percent higher. The terms of fiscal restraint can be negotiated; the need for restraint of some kind can’t. Hopefully, Wisconsin Senate Democrats can de-escalate their war of words and move toward compromise mode. First, however, they have to come home.