Note: This essay, by Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders, was written for a national audience and published March 23 on PoliticusUSA.
By now most people in Wisconsin and throughout the nation know what Gov. Scott Walker has done. He and the GOP-controlled state Legislature have rammed through a bill that extracts unilateral benefit concessions from state workers and strips most state and local public employees, from school teachers to prison guards to snow plow operators, of their right to collectively bargain over benefits and working conditions. It also imposes changes -- like making public employee union dues optional and requiring annual secret re-certification votes -- that will make it difficult for these unions to survive.
Also understood, thanks in part to Walker's embarrassing 20-minute phone call (PDF) with a prankster he thought was billionaire benefactor David Koch, is why the governor did this. Walker, in this call, agreed with "Koch" that Wisconsin would be "the first domino" in a larger campaign among Republican governors to neuter public employee unions -- a major source of money and volunteers for Democratic candidates, against the now-unlimited ability of corporations to pour money into elections. He compared his crusade to President Reagan's 1981 firing of air traffic controllers, bizarrely calling this "the first crack in the Berlin wall." And Walker responded approvingly when urged to "crush these bastards," in reference to his state's public employees.
But perhaps the most pernicious aspect of Walker's agenda, and the one that's gotten the least attention, is how Walker has gone about achieving his aims. He's done it by seeking to turn worker against worker, neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member. And while in this vile endeavor he has had some success, it's clear that the division he's sown will make it difficult for him to prevail, and impossible for him to be an effective leader, at least not in Wisconsin.
The changes Walker included in his "budget repair bill," unveiled Feb. 11, passed March 10 and now in limbo pending legal challenges, are ostensibly necessary to balance the state's budget gap of $137 million through June 30 and $3.6 billion over the next biennium. But the need for this remedy is widely disputed -- including by all 14 Democratic members of the state Senate, who fled the state for three weeks to prevent its passage.
Under the bill, most state employees will have to pay half their pensions and twice as much toward health insurance costs, benefits their unions have forfeited salary hikes to maintain. Walker never even tried to negotiate, even after every affected union in Wisconsin agreed to these demands, if only they could keep collective bargaining rights. And, at every turn, he's sought to focus resentment on these workers.
"For those outside of government, who overwhelmingly ... are paying more than double what we're asking for in this measure, they look at this and say, 'Where do I sign up for this?'" Walker said at one press conference. "Every factory worker I talked to this last week, who is paying 25 to 50 percent for their health care premium, who doesn't have a pension, who has to pay into a 401(k) and in some cases had that suspended, every one of them looks at this and says, 'You know what? Not only do I not get that, [I have] to pay for it.' That guy has to pay the difference.... He has to [foot] the bill for everyone else."
National conservative commentators have echoed this theme. On the same day that Walker appeared as a guest on his program, Rush Limbaugh ridiculed Wisconsin's public employees as "a bunch of people who feel entitled to be freeloaders." Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, better known as "Joe the Plumber," came to Madison to explain how these workers think: "'I deserve this, I deserve that. I deserve the money in your pocket, sir.' Whatever happened to the word 'earn'?"
A similar sentiment held sway over the one "big" pro-Walker rally in Madison on Feb. 19. Organized by Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing group funded by the real David Koch, it drew an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people, countered by more than 60,000 anti-Walker supporters. The pro-Walker attendees I interviewed talked about how hard they work and how tough they have it compared to teachers and other public employees. When I asked one woman about the gains, like worker's compensation and the 40-hour work week, that Wisconsin unions have helped secure even for nonunion folks, she shot back, "Why should I pay for them to have 40 hours when I have to work 60?"
The toxins Walker has unleashed into his state's body politic will remain for years, even decades, tearing apart families and communities. Personally, I cannot decide which seems less painful: The next get-together of my own extended family or having my face eaten by wild boars.
But something else is happening due to Walker's actions. For every state resident enraged by school teachers' generous perks, many more are disinclined to side against people who have played a key role in their lives. High school students have led walkouts and taken part in marches. "Don't bully my teacher" is a recurring sign.
The daily rallies at the state Capitol since Feb. 14 have drawn more than half a million people, including a crowd of perhaps 100,000 on Feb. 26, a cold and snowy Saturday. For more than a week, mostly student protesters maintained a constant protest presence at the Capitol, banging drums in support of collective bargaining rights and sleeping overnight on cold marble floors, until a judge's ruling that they could be removed prompted them to voluntarily withdraw. The battle has been joined by public and private unionists all over the state, with support rallies all over the nation. These will likely reach a new level of intensity now that the bill has passed as a result of legislative maneuvers the Democrats are plausibly claiming to be illegal.
Most amazingly, the state's law enforcement officers and fire fighters, whom Walker exempted from his benefit concessions and collective bargaining crackdown, have been a major presence at these protest rallies. Warm relations have developed between the protesters and the more than 200 law enforcement officers called in each day from all over the state to keep the peace against no apparent threat; they see each other as being on the same side. When the state began severely restricting Capitol access, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney pulled his deputies from the security detail, saying he would not let them be used as "palace guards."
Besides busting unions, Walker's "budget repair bill" curbs spending on Medicaid and replaces some state civil service positions with political appointees. His biennial budget bill, unveiled March 1, would slash state aid to public schools and municipalities while blocking them from raising the property tax; sharply reduce tax credits for low-income wage earners; end state funding for recycling and bicycle paths; eliminate a requirement that communities seek to reduce runoff pollution to lakes; cut state spending on the arts by two-thirds; jeopardize lending programs between public libraries; and strike down a law that requires insurance companies that pay for Viagra to also cover birth control. Among other things.
Each offended constituency is making common cause with others, ratcheting up the volume of the state's dissent and creating camaraderie between groups -- unions and advocates of social justice, for instance -- which formerly maintained a sort of respectful distance. Peace activists will join efforts to recall Republican lawmakers who support union-busting measures (and ultimately Walker himself, when this becomes an option early next year, after he's served a full year in office), and unions will join the battle to fight cuts in programs that serve people in desperate need.
"Existing coalitions are strengthening and new alliances are being formed," says Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now, a statewide progressive advocacy group. "People are pulling together because they know it's them against Gov. Walker and the Republicans, who are trying to undo what has been the core of our quality of life in Wisconsin -- things like education and access to health care."
The protests have drawn supporters from all over the country. Jesse Jackson has come here several times. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, and singer Michelle Shocked have performed.
On March 5, raconteur Michael Moore addressed a Capitol crowd estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000. He cataloged the injustices heaped on working people, from outsourcing to corporate bailouts, remarking that "there was no revolt ... UNTIL NOW!"
"I'm so proud of you," Moore told the gathering. "You have aroused a sleeping giant known as the working people of the United States of America! Right now, the earth is shaking and the ground is shifting under the feet of those who are in charge. Your message has inspired people in all 50 states, and that message is: 'We have had it!'"
Already, tough talking Republican governors in other states -- including Terry Branstad of Iowa, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania and Mitch Daniels of Indiana -- have backed off from anti-union efforts there. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the toughest talker of them all, now insists, "I love collective bargaining." Don't expect any serious Republic contender for president to profess an affinity for Walker or his anti-union crusade.
From every perspective it's clear Walker has overplayed his hand and invited a backlash that will permanently undermine his ability to govern. The opportunity he inherited from past Wisconsin governors like Tommy Thompson -- to be respected even by political foes -- is forever lost. From now until the end of his term, Walker will be will be regarded with bitter enmity by hundreds of thousands of resourceful people who hold positions of influence within their communities.
Can the people of Wisconsin and the people of the United States stop Scott Walker from getting what he wants? Maybe not. But they can and will ensure that the price he pays to get it will make him the biggest sucker in America.