The Magazine

Walker’s Big Bet

Will the voters of Wisconsin stand up to the unions?

Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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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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