The fix and the fight

The fix and the fight

It was altogether fitting and proper in 2011 that Illinois — the land of both Lincoln and corruption — became a home away from home for on-the-lam state lawmakers from Wisconsin and Indiana.

The solons repaired to the haven of our state (Indiana Democrats in Urbana and Wisconsin Democrats in Rockford) to escape their official duties as members of the legislatures in their own states. Thus, Illinois had a brush with history, playing host to recalcitrant Dems fighting off a GOP version of political reform — cutting powerful union interests down to size.

Indiana ultimately passed a right-to-work law, eliminating the legal command that all employees in union shops pay union dues whether they wanted to join a union or not. The issue stirred up a big fight in the Hoosier state.

But it was in Wisconsin, where new Republican Gov. Scott Walker sought to strip public unionized workers of most of their long-held rights, that a shifting of tectonic plates produced a political earthquake still reverberating.

Wow, what a battle it was and continues to be. And what a tremendous book about it that reporters Jason Stein and Patrick Marley have produced.

"More Than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions and the Fight for Wisconsin" will almost certainly be the seminal account of this battle royal. That's partly because a political fight in one state has limited appeal to residents of other states, but it's mostly because these newspaper reporters have produced an exhaustive account of one of the most fascinating chapters in any state's history.

Exhaustive definitely does not mean exhausting. Those who like their politics up close and personal will love "More Than They Bargained For." It has everything: political drama among cutthroat politicians, near-riot conditions that engulfed the state capitol for weeks on end, elections and recall elections, courtroom battles and the thrill of victory and the agony of an especially agonizing defeat for what heretofore were all-powerful union interests that dominated state government.

Whoa, baby, this book is fun.

At the center of it all was the new governor: Walker, a former Eagle Scout who inherited a multibillion-dollar budget deficit from his Democratic predecessor and was determined to come up with a permanent fix. He concluded that union power was forcing state and local governments to spend more than they could afford and sought systemic change in a way that unions found inconceivable in liberal Wisconsin.

A former county executive who had had mixed success dealing with a unionized work force, Walker didn't run on the platform of crushing public employee unions. But after he was elected governor in November 2010, Walker indicated that contract givebacks would be necessary to address the state's budget woes.

Union leaders not only weren't impressed, they were contemptuous. Dismissing Walker's request to talk, they wrapped up negotiations on a generous new contract with the outgoing Democratic governor and tried to jam it through the Legislature before Walker took office. They fell one Democratic vote short of presenting Walker with a fait accompli.

When he took office, Walker swung for the fences. He proposed legislation that stripped public employee unions of their ability to negotiate anything but limited raises for their members. Under the Walker plan, government would no longer collect dues for the unions, and employees would no longer have to pay dues if they didn't want to join a union. Union members also could vote each year if they wanted to recertify the union as their bargaining agent.

In addition to his announced goal of dealing with the state's financial woes, Walker had an unannounced goal of reducing the amount of their members' dues money that unions spent to elect Democrats.

In addition to their announced goal of protecting workers' rights, Democrats also had an unannounced goal. They wanted to keep union members' dues flowing to the union leaders so it could be passed on to them in the form of campaign contributions.

Neither side had completely clean hands. Consequently, a state known for its above-board approach to government had a dirty fight on its hands.

With a GOP governor and Republican legislative majorities, Walker had the votes to get what he wanted. Even as thousands of union supporters descended on the capitol building and chanted "shame, shame" from the galleries, they prepared to pass their bill.

That's when the Senate Democrats bolted, leaving Senate Republicans without the necessary quorum to take action.

It was a comic but effective tactic, one that threw more fuel on the fire as news reporters from all over the world came to Madison, known as "Madtown," to witness the madness firsthand.

People on all sides of the debate were stunned by the vehemence of the public reaction. Union demonstrators drew anti-union counter-demonstrators. When President Obama butted into the fight, it drew a national GOP counter-reaction from 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Sensing an opportunity for more TV face time, the Rev. Jesse Jackson made repeated visits to Madison to lead the charge against Walker. The Comedy Central TV channel even got in on the act, bringing a camel to Madison in an effort to compare the political revolution in Wisconsin with the so-called Arab Spring sweeping the Middle East.

Then things really got crazy. Activists started going after individual legislators and Walker with plans for a string of recall elections. Millions of dollars in TV advertising money poured in, engulfing state residents in strident attack ads.

Those who follow politics know the ending. The prodigal Democrats came home. Walker's bill passed. A Madison-based judge struck it down. The state's supreme court ultimately upheld the bill, but not before two judges (one a Democrat and the other a Republican) had a physical altercation that prompted the Democrat to accuse the Republican of trying to choke her. His defense: He didn't choke her, but merely put his hands on her neck to prevent her from punching him.

Walker ultimately survived the recall, shattering union leaders and Democrats who had grown to hate him.

The public was more supportive because Walker's reform had the intended effect on the financial problems of state and local governments.

But Wisconsin Democrats and the unions will never forget this defeat. It's seared in their brains, and they're consumed with thoughts of revenge. They'll be back to claim Walker's scalp, and they might get it as soon as the 2014 election.

This wasn't just a fight over controversial legislation. It was a political civil war not only between management and labor but among family members, neighbors and friends.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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