The Magazine

On Wisconsin!

How Republicans won the battle of Madison.

Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES AND JOHN MCCORMACK
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Unions claimed that they objected chiefly to the limits on collective bargaining, which they said would leave public employees vulnerable to unjust firings and unfair changes to their benefits. The unions also objected to a provision that would allow public employees to choose for themselves whether to join the union and pay dues—a departure from current law. Other states that had implemented these changes had seen union membership drop precipitously, and union leaders understood that the corresponding loss of power and money would be devastating. 

So despite the fact that there are dozens of states without collective bargaining for public employees, and that most federal workers do not have collective bargaining rights, and that the increases in benefit contributions contained in the budget repair bill were modest—leaving state employees considerably better off than their private-sector counterparts—union bosses mobilized their resources to fight in Madison. The rallies were huge—with organizational help from the Democratic National Committee and the good fortune that Madison, with its graying radicals and leftist college students, is better prepared for an insta-protest than just about any other city in the country. So for weeks, as Democratic senators hid in Illinois and malcontents camped in the capitol at times literally blocked legislative action, the protesters chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.”*

As soon as the senate Democrats left town, Republicans began to explore their options for passing the budget repair bill without them. There was talk—public and private—about “splitting” the bill to get around the need for a three-fifths quorum. For most, this meant separating the two main provisions of the legislation—the collective bargaining reforms in one bill and the benefit contribution increases in another. 

Walker didn’t want to do this. Democrats were accusing him of including the collective bargaining restrictions for no other reason than to weaken unions, saying the collective bargaining provisions had no fiscal impact. On the surface, separating the bills would seem to validate this criticism, although no one knows better than union bosses just how important a tool limiting collective bargaining would be to reducing expenditures on public employees. In fact, school districts and local governments could require changes to their employees’ health benefits only if collective bargaining were curtailed.

So on February 28, senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald drove across southern Wisconsin to meet with two Democrats who wanted to explore a compromise, Bob Jauch and Tim Cullen. Fitzgerald says that the two had opposed the flight to Illinois in the first place and along with at least one other colleague wanted to find a way to return. They explored several options over hotcakes and sausage at a local McDonald’s. Fitzgerald left without a compromise but with what he believed was a commitment that the Democrats would soon be returning to Madison.

“I met ’em on a Monday,” Fitzgerald recalls. “They called me on a Tuesday saying they’d be in the chamber Wednesday morning. I called them on Wednesday morning to say, ‘Listen, I know you’re coming back, let me call the cops to give them a heads up that you’ll be back.’ And then Senator Cullen said, ‘Well, Fitz, what I told you the other day was true at the time I said it, but we’re not coming back.’ ”

Fitzgerald was frustrated and concluded the Democrats were not negotiating in good faith. He called Cullen and told him to deal directly with the governor’s office. 

Walker instructed two of his top aides—chief of staff Keith Gilkes and deputy chief of staff Eric Schutt—to pick up negotiations with the Democrats. “There was continued optimism on our side that something would get done,” says a source close to Walker. The governor would not compromise on the two main components of the bill. But he was willing to make some concessions, such as allowing unions to bargain collectively for wages beyond the rate of inflation, as well as for performance bonuses, mandatory overtime, and class size. 

The discussions on March 2, again in a McDonald’s, included the two moderate Democrats, the governor’s staff, and, importantly, Mark Miller, the Democratic leader. When the negotiations ended, Republicans once again believed their colleagues would be returning soon. Gilkes woke Walker up with a phone call at 11:45 p.m. on Wednesday to tell him that they had agreed on “the framework for a deal” that would be finalized in the coming days. The talks continued by phone for several days and culminated in a meeting between Gilkes, Schutt, Jauch, and Cullen on Sunday, March 6, in South Beloit. 

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