Madison, Wisconsin

Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality,” quipped Republican Wisconsin governor Lee Dreyfus in 1978. At no point in the past three decades have his words been truer than during the past two weeks.

Protesters have taken over the capitol building. They bang on drums at all hours of the day. “Freedom! Democracy! Union!” is one of their favorite chants. Their goal, of course, is preventing a vote on Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill that would change the benefits and collective bargaining rights for public employee union members. To achieve that end, the state’s 14 senate Democrats have fled to a hotel in Illinois in order to deny the quorum needed for a budget vote.

Outside, public school teachers, along with a smattering of socialists, other state workers, and their own children, rally against the legislation. “I want everybody to jump the f— up in solidarity,” musician Tom Morello tells the crowd gathered on February 21. “I’m sorry if there are some children in the audience, but the struggle for justice is not always rated PG-13.”

“No matter whatever Scott Walker, the Mubarak of the Midwest, says, this land is your land,” continues Morello, formerly of the funk metal band Rage Against the Machine, before singing “This Land Is Your Land.”

Mubarak/Walker comparisons are prevalent. So are signs equating Walker to Hitler. “In 1933, [Hitler] abolished unions, and that’s what our governor is doing today,” Democratic state senator Lena Taylor said in front of a camera before she skipped town. Not to be outdone, some clever Teamsters have come up with their own signs: “Hosni + Hitler = Walker.”

To help mock the Madison/Cairo comparisons, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show even brought in a live camel. The poor thing, obviously not used to snow and ice, got tripped up by a metal fence, fell to the ground, and brayed pathetically until firefighters rescued it.

As surreal as the scene in Madison has been in recent weeks, it may be the new reality of American politics (well, without the camel). The protests were kicked off, after all, by Walker’s attempt to deal with the $3.6 billion hole in the state’s biennial budget, a problem not unique to Wisconsin. The unrest in Madison could spread to other state capitals where governors try to rein in out-of-control spending on the pensions and health care benefits of unionized government workers. The fight in Madison may very well play out on the national stage if and when Congress attempts to slash the federal deficit—which is about one thousand times bigger than Wisconsin’s.

Yes, the reaction in Wisconsin has been extraordinarily fierce because Walker is trying to roll back union power by limiting the collective bargaining rights of school teachers to wages. But as Walker tells it, this is the only way to get the state’s fiscal house in order “now—and in the future,” as he said during a televised address to Wisconsinites on February 22.

Teachers’ union representatives are willing—or at least say they’re willing—to concede the “now” part. But they want to preserve collective bargaining rights largely in order to protect themselves from reductions to their benefits in the future. Concessions are worth it in the short term if they help teachers preserve a defined benefit pension system found almost nowhere in the private sector and Cadillac health insurance plans.

So teachers are offering to accept Walker’s proposal that they contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pension (up from almost nothing) and pay about 12 percent for health insurance premiums (up from about 6 percent). That’s real money: about $4,000 before taxes for a teacher making $50,000 in base pay. But the increased contributions would still be only about half what a typical worker pays. With these two changes, Walker’s office projects school districts would save about $1 billion over two years—roughly the same amount by which the new budget will reduce state outlays to the schools.

If teachers are willing to make these concessions, why is it necessary to curtail collective bargaining? While Walker’s legislation would require all public employees, including teachers, to contribute more to the statewide pension program, its increase in health insurance premium payments does not apply to teachers unless implemented by school districts. The bill gets rid of collective bargaining for benefits in order to give the districts the option of increasing health insurance premium payments.

School districts would be free to make up for the reduction in state aid in other ways—a local tax increase by referendum, for example. Or they could switch to the state employees’ health plan from the WEA Trust (a health insurance company created by the teachers’ union). That measure could save school districts in the state up to $68 million. But again, school districts will have the freedom to do that only after current contracts expire if collective bargaining is curtailed.

The governor concedes that collective bargaining “sounds, on the surface, fairly reasonable.” But as a former county executive of Milwaukee, Walker has seen the problems that public employee unions create. “The law is tilted very much towards the collective bargaining units, the unions,” Walker told me. “We saw that in Milwaukee County time and time again.”

In order to avoid long furloughs or laying off workers, Walker tried to get unions to agree to modest increases in pension or health insurance premium contributions. “One year, we tried to do, for a couple weeks, a 35-hour work week,” he said. “In each case the unions told us, ‘Forget it.’ They were willing to have us lay off 400 or 500 people or more. That’s typically what happens.”

There are other provisions of Walker’s bill that teachers’ union members loathe. Many resent the bill’s exemption for police and firefighters. Walker said this was “purely a public safety issue” done out of concern that police would walk off the job. Truant teachers have given legitimacy to this concern, but it’s hard not to see a political angle as well behind the exemption for public sector workers who are more popular and more likely to vote Republican.

The bill also includes a provision that requires teachers to vote each year on union representation, and another that would end the automatic deduction of union dues—as much as $1,000 per year—from teachers’ paychecks. Union representatives see this as a naked attempt to break them. Republicans think it’s simply bringing democracy to the unions.

It’s anyone’s guess how this fight plays out in the end. Walker says he’s “not budging,” and state senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald says the GOP “caucus is solid.” The problem is that Republicans can’t make the senate Democrats come home.

Pressure may mount on the Democrats as more Wisconsin editorial pages call on them to get back to work, layoff notices are received by public employees, and Republicans begin passing other legislation that requires a simple majority for a quorum. But the choice to return is ultimately theirs.

Both Walker and Majority Leader Fitzgerald say it’s procedurally possible to vote on the collective bargaining part of the bill with a simple majority present for a quorum, which is all that’s necessary for “normal business.” But they’re opposed to such a move for now. They say it’s important to pass all the provisions in the budget bill at the same time. But the bigger reason may be that not all the Republicans have the stomach to vote on a stand-alone measure.

They may fear such a vote would open them up to charges that collective bargaining doesn’t have a budgetary impact. It does by helping school districts and municipalities absorb reductions in state aid, but it wouldn’t fall under the category of laws that require a three-fifths quorum. Republicans could become more willing to vote on a stand-alone measure if Democrats remain in Illinois for weeks or months.

What may have a real impact on the debate’s future are recall elections that senators on both sides could face. It takes about 10,000 to 20,000 signatures to petition for a recall election. With a 19-14 edge in the 33-seat body, Republicans are one seat shy of controlling three-fifths of the senate, and Democrats are three seats short of a majority.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who’s taking the threat of a recall lightly,” says Republican state senator Dan Kapanke, whose western Wisconsin district is represented by a Democrat in the U.S. House. “That’s very serious and very real.”

But Kapanke says there are bigger concerns than keeping his job. “Do we have the backbone to stand up and address our fiscal problems?” he asks. “At the end of the day, what is Wisconsin going to look like in five years or ten years? That’s far more important than my job as a state senator or anybody’s job as a state senator.”

John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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