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Selling Act 10: How Walker persuaded reluctant Republicans to back his anti-union plan
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Reporters Marley (right) and Stein did research for their book while reporting on Gov. Scott Walker (left) and the Capitol protests.
Credit:Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Just as pundits across the country are parsing the likelihood of a 2016 presidential bid by Gov. Scott Walker, the University of Wisconsin Press is releasing a behind-the-scenes look at the spectacle launched by the governor's 2011 proposal to all but end collective bargaining rights for public employees.

More Than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions and the Fight for Wisconsin is by Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, state Capitol reporters for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Stein and Marley put in 12- to 14-hour days when Walker's plan sparked marathon legislative sessions and protests that attracted international attention. While the authors draw on much of their own daily reporting for the book, they also conducted in-depth interviews with many of the principals.

"Most of the sources were more willing to talk about it and go into greater detail out of a sense of having been part of history," says Stein.

Walker declined to be interviewed for the book, but the authors say they were able to get their questions answered in the course of their reporting.

Overall, says Stein, there is "no shattering bombshell in the book. But people who read the book will find out things they didn't know before."

More Than They Bargained For has already garnered high praise from Kirkus Reviews, which wrote that the authors deliver "an impressively objective account of the struggle, ably describing the objectives and tactics of each side in a confident and engaging style.... This may be the definitive history of exactly what each side did to the other during these momentous months."

Raphael Kadushin, the UW Press' senior acquisitions editor, says, "Although the book is very much about the present and future of Wisconsin, it is also the story of a seriously divided nation. What is happening here is a microcosm of a much bigger fissure."

As is clear from the following excerpt - drawn from chapter 5, "Dropping the Bomb" - more mainstream Republicans tried, but failed, to scale back Walker's union plan.

The dynamics in the current legislative session, however, have shifted a bit, the authors say.

"There are more moderate Republicans in the Senate who have a little more power or a little more willingness to flex that power," says Marley. Walker's private school voucher plan is ambitious, but it's not clear he will get what he's asking for, Marley adds.

"Those more moderate senators will decide that."

Stein and Marley will read from their book on April 4, 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble BooksellersWest Towne.

- Judith Davidoff

A blizzard was bearing down on Madison on Feb. 1, 2011, and a political storm was gathering inside the Capitol. Out of the clutches of the cold, Senate President Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) was tucked away in his elegant office just off the Senate floor, where the pictures on the walls told of his lifetime in politics and past encounters with giants like Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Ellis still had no clue about the approach of this political storm, which was to rage long after the snows of the first had melted. But he was about to find out. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) marched into Ellis' office to tell him what he had learned from the governor's office about Scott Walker's plan on collective bargaining. "You better sit down; you're not going to believe what I'm going to tell you," Fitzgerald said. "He's going to do away with all [public-sector] unions."

"What?" the Senate president replied. "Holy shit! I can't believe this."

Fitzgerald, too, had been taken aback when he learned of the plan, even though he had known something big was likely. During the transition, Walker adviser and campaign manager Keith Gilkes - a former aide to Fitzgerald - had told the Senate Republican leader that there would be a budget-repair bill and that it could be contentious, but that Republicans could mitigate the controversy by passing it quickly. Fitzgerald didn't know details, but he knew polls were being conducted to gauge voter perceptions of public-sector unions.

As it turned out, the governor was planning to eliminate all public-worker unions in the state except those for police and firefighters. Private-sector unions would not be affected, but the unions of school, municipal, county and state employees would lose their official standing.

When Fitzgerald found out to his surprise what the package would include, he took the matter to Ellis. He saw gaining Ellis' support as crucial to getting the measure passed because he knew Ellis was a master at burying a bill if he opposed it. Walker's office also understood Ellis' ability to undermine their agenda and approved of Fitzgerald talking to him early. "He's not a great friend, but he can be a fantastic enemy," Gilkes said of Ellis more than a year later.

Ellis felt strongly that bold moves were needed to rescue the state's budget, which was a longstanding crusade of his. At the same time, he knew from experience which subjects at the Capitol were firecrackers and which were dynamite.

A former teacher and a political survivor, Ellis led Senate Republicans through much of the 1990s, a time when control of that house ping-ponged between the two political parties and the art of political compromise was still practiced and appreciated. The idea of blowing up the state's unions seemed to him ill-advised and, more to the point, impossible to pass in the Senate. Though more conservative than Ellis, Fitzgerald also opposed eliminating public-sector unions altogether because he thought it would be viewed as an attempt to destroy the Democrats politically.

Ultimately, Democrats did come to exactly this conclusion.

After hearing about the plan from Fitzgerald, Ellis went further than Fitzgerald by arguing for keeping in place "fair share" payments that would allow the unions to require nonmembers to pay fees equivalent to dues. That would have let unions keep more of their financial resources and the power that they conferred.

Ellis and Fitzgerald had a series of meetings on their own to decide what to do and then sat down with the governor for a face-to-face meeting. Walker argued that his plan was a bold but necessary stroke that was essential to setting Wisconsin on solid financial footing for the future. In his blunt style, Ellis dissented. "My God, this is going to cause a firestorm," he said.

Ellis argued for leaving the unions in place and instead concentrating on money-saving moves such as the benefit concessions included in the bill. Rather than negotiating with unions for such givebacks, as state officials had for decades, the governor's bill would simply impose the concessions on employees.

The move could be immediately invoked since the Senate in December 2010 had rejected labor contracts that would have locked the state into a deal with its unions until June 2011. Like everything else in the bill, the change was also possible because unions for state and local government employees were governed by the state laws that had created them.

In that respect, they were different from unions at private companies, which were largely controlled by federal law. Walker was proposing simply wiping away the state laws creating the public-sector unions. The groups could continue to exist - their members still had the fundamental freedom as citizens to associate with one another - but government officials would now be prohibited from bargaining with them or giving them any other consideration. The workers would have no more leverage than they could scrape together through their value in the labor market, work actions like pickets, and appeals to public opinion.

Public-safety workers such as police officers and firefighters would be exempted from Walker's plan. A few of those groups, such as those representing Milwaukee cops, Milwaukee firefighters and state highway troopers, had supported the governor's campaign, later prompting questions of whether Walker's treatment of them amounted to political payback.

Walker denied the allegation and said the groups were exempted to make sure they would not illegally strike, since that would invite serious consequences, both for the people of the state and his own career. No one could replace those public-safety workers overnight, so Walker's proposal protected them.

But every other public union, including those for police officers who kept the peace at state universities and the Capitol, was no longer needed or wanted, he argued. Besides any talks on benefits, the plan would eliminate bargaining on workplace safety, on seniority in the event of layoffs, and a host of other work rules that for decades had dictated how governments across Wisconsin had dealt with their employees.

Ellis asked Walker, "If you can't identify fiscal savings from a collective bargaining item, why not leave it alone?" There was also the question of whether striking at public-sector unions - the last real bastion of organized labor - wouldn't also prove a blow to the state's unions at private companies.

Ellis figured the private-sector unions would recognize the stakes and join with their publicly employed brothers to fight Republicans, a notion the governor dismissed. Walker also talked about the plans that his administration had in place to handle strikes or other job actions by state workers.

Long after the struggle, the governor acknowledged that it was "absolutely correct" that he and his aides had focused their planning on ways to keep the state's prisons, bureaucracy and other functions running if state employees refused to show up for work - a challenge that never materialized. But the governor's new administration hadn't planned for the problem that did arise: a lengthy political standoff in which unions demonstrated significant support both within the state and outside it.

The senators later met with a larger group to negotiate and refine the details of the plan. The meeting included Ellis and Scott Fitzgerald; Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald; Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch; and the governor's deputy chief of staff, Eric Schutt, who as a legislative aide had served in past budget negotiations. The group met down the hall from Ellis' office, in a conference room just off the Senate floor. Republicans used the room for meetings, and in it Ellis kept a pair of blackboards, of the sort he had once used as a teacher, that he filled with numbers charting the financial woes of the state.

In the short term, the budget problems were modest, but in the long term they were grave. The state was halfway through a fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2011, and the best predictions of impartial budget experts at that time put the state's budget more than $100 million short. Some Democrats and union supporters would soon be claiming that the state didn't have a budget crisis, pointing to a report by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the budget office serving lawmakers of both parties. This report showed that under what was then current law, the state would end the year with a surplus.

But the claim of Walker's opponents was misleading. It was true that the state would end the year with a surplus if no changes were made to the budget then laid out in state law. But it was also true that a number of unbudgeted costs had arisen for the state in areas like health care for the poor, prisons, and a tax deal with the state of Minnesota. Failing to address the added costs for health care and prisons could have endangered or disrupted nursing home care for the elderly, doctor's visits for children, and the imperative to keep prisoners behind bars....

Over the last decade, Mike Ellis had watched Wisconsin's budget practices with increasing disgust. He would pigeonhole reporters, aides, other lawmakers and anyone he could compel to listen to him, and rail about the state's profligacy and the need to reform it. Now Walker and his aides were telling the senator that the way to do that was to end collective bargaining.

Ellis wasn't satisfied, however. In the meeting in his conference room, Ellis and the other lawmakers pressed Walker's aides for changes to his proposal. They weren't looking for something that would make it palatable to Democrats - that would be impossible - just acceptable for moderate Republicans. In two small respects, the legislators made headway.

They insisted that unions continue to be recognized under state law and also be allowed to bargain over their salaries within an effective limit tied to the rate of inflation. The salary proposal came from an offhand remark by one of Ellis' aides, Mike Boerger, who didn't think much of his own suggestion at the time and was surprised when it became part of the bill. That proposal essentially guaranteed that through bargaining, the wages of union workers would stay flat or erode over time - not rise.

"We came over here, and over the course of the next week we started talking about what we could live with. And what we could live with was, you can't do away with the unions, you've got to leave them there. So we went from getting rid of them to leaving them," Ellis said later.

For their part, Walker's aides tried to reassure the senators that the governor's plan amounted to both good policy and good politics, and that there would be "air cover" in the form of expensive television ads defending the proposal.

Ellis' office soon got back a sheet of paper with the terms of what the senators had supposedly agreed to in the meeting: They would eliminate all collective bargaining for most public employees except for a limited amount over wages. But it also called for requiring unions to have annual elections in which at least 51% of their members and other eligible employees in a given workplace would have to vote that their union should keep its official status. If they didn't reach that threshold each year, the labor group would lose its standing before the state and with it the limited ability to bargain over wages.

This meant that if only half of the members showed up to vote, the union would then be decertified even if all the ballots were in favor of retaining it. Ellis said that he and Fitzgerald later met again over the memo. "We said, 'Well, we didn't agree to this,'" Ellis said....

The governor met with his cabinet to discuss the bill on Feb. 7, one day after the Green Bay Packers' victory in Super Bowl XLV. Still feeling a boost from the Packers' win, the group had dinner at the spacious lakeside mansion that Wisconsin governors have called home since 1949.

Holding up a photo of Ronald Reagan, Walker reminded his cabinet that the day before marked what would have been the former president's 100th birthday and compared his legislation with Reagan's stand against a group of striking air traffic controllers. There were differences between Reagan's views and his own: Reagan had his showdown with the air traffic controllers union because its members were involved in an illegal strike; by contrast, the unions in Wisconsin hadn't broken any laws. As a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan supported the right of federal workers to collectively bargain, just not to strike.

Later, in what Walker thought was a private conversation, he recalled what he told his cabinet that evening. "You know, this may sound a little melodramatic, but 30 years ago Ronald Reagan...had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air traffic controllers," he said. "To me, that moment was more important than just for labor relations or even the federal budget. That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and the fall of communism because from that point forward the Soviets and the communists knew that Ronald Reagan wasn't a pushover.... This may not have as broad of world implications, but in Wisconsin's history...this is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history."

But so far, the real back and forth on Walker's proposal had taken place between Republicans and behind closed doors. Walker still hadn't talked to the public about what he saw as a historic change. After the crisis was over, Walker looked back on the year in a December 2011 interview and acknowledged that he should have talked with voters about the issue before dropping his proposal on them.

"I would have spent more time, if I could do it over again, in January and February [2011] making the case," Walker said. "Because what I hear is even people who kind of appreciate what's been done still occasionally will say, 'Yeah, but you should have told us more about why you were going to do [that],' and I can see that.... The mistake was I should have done more of that. I should have laid it out."

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