More Than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions, and the Fight for Wisconsin, by Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, University of Wisconsin Press, 350 pages, $26.95.
It’s not clear who first introduced the chant “this is what democracy looks like” to the epic early-2011 showdown in Wisconsin between angry public-sector union workers and newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The protesters shouting the phrase surely meant to insist that they were the true voice of the people. But despite the sheer size and raucous noise of the crowds that packed the Wisconsin State Capitol for weeks protesting Walker’s proposed legislation to roll back union benefits and prerogatives, the demonstrators ultimately lost every fight that mattered. They lost because the voting public in Wisconsin approved of Walker’s plan, albeit narrowly.
The people had already spoken when they elected a Republican governor and legislative majority in 2010. Democracy then re-affirmed Walker’s controversial decisions even under the glare of a nationwide spotlight and a hostile press. Nevertheless, the sloganeers were correct, just not in the way they intended.
As Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporters Jason Stein and Patrick Marley note in their book More Than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions, and the Fight for Wisconsin, “The citizens of Wisconsin and indeed the country as a whole, sometimes derided as apathetic and out of touch, showed that they were eager to engage on both sides, to defend the rights of workers and to safeguard the state’s financial future.” The engaged activists “marched, they sent hundreds of thousands of emails and tweets, and they overwhelmingly held themselves to a peaceful, democratic purpose, which asserted itself even in the face of the many exceptions to that general rule. Likewise, the police and authorities also managed to handle the protests without serious injury or loss of life on either side. When it came time to vote, citizens set turnout records.”
Engaged citizenry, vigorous debate, productive legislatures: This is everything that good-government types usually pine for. Yet most national media outlets viewed the Walker/union battle as something distasteful and unfortunate. “How did Wisconsin become the most divisive place in America?” clucked a New York Times headline.
One of the greatest motivators for political participation, it turns out, is bitter division. As Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Beaver Dam) put it in February 2011, “Democracy isn’t pretty all the time.”
In their admirably evenhanded account, Stein and Marley leave readers to their own conclusions. But More Than They Bargained For suggests that the Wisconsin fight was less a failure of the Badger State’s democratic traditions than an example of how strong those traditions remain.
Wisconsin is the birthplace of public-sector unions. The nation’s largest such organization, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), was founded there in 1932 as the Wisconsin State Employees Association. That history fueled the outraged response to Walker’s attempted rollback of labor’s power. This was their home turf. If it could happen there, it could happen anywhere.
Unionizing people working on the taxpayer’s dime was a divisive issue from the start. “[Franklin Delano] Roosevelt said that such unions couldn’t take the same approach or militancy given that ‘their employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress,’ ” Stein and Marley note.
Unlike in the private sector, government-employee union members are also a political constituency of their ostensible bosses. The average private-sector boss, when working out a contract with a union, doesn’t have to worry that his employees might vote him out of a job—or give barrels of money to his rivals—if they don’t like his contract.
That political power gives public-sector unions an edge their private-sector counterparts lack. It’s no coincidence that while private-sector unionization has plummeted from 20.1 percent in 1980 to 6.6 percent in 2012, the public-sector rate rests at 35.9 percent, down just a bit from a 1994 high of 38.7 percent, according to the Labor Department. In 2009 for the first time ever, the number of public-sector union workers exceeded those outside government employ. (As of 2012 the gap is 7.3 million to 7 million and growing.)
As Milwaukee County Executive from 2002 to 2010, young Scott Walker had clashed repeatedly with public-sector unions. Labor costs are one of the main elements in local government budgets. His Democratic predecessor as county executive cut sweetheart deals with unions, such as providing six-figure payouts to some retirees who were also getting $60,000 a year in annuities, driving up current and future costs. Walker fought, mostly futilely, to prune back those promises.
“Walker’s agenda quickly brought him and the county’s public employee unions into conflict,” write Stein and Marley. “In negotiations, he struggled to get concessions and agreements that would produce the kinds of savings for taxpayers that he had built into his budgets. Unions countered that Walker was budgeting in bad faith, plugging numbers into his budget plans that he knew unions would successfully oppose at the bargaining table.” Walker grew so frustrated that in 2009 he called for dismantling the entire county government and parceling out its functions.
Despite this history, few suspected the coming firestorm when the boyish-looking Republican was elected governor in 2010. Walker hadn’t campaigned on rewriting public-sector union laws—a fact his critics would return to repeatedly, arguing he lacked a mandate. (Stein and Marley are sympathetic to this critique.) But Walker’s county-level budgetary battles were never far from his mind.
To avoid a repeat of his setbacks in Milwaukee County, Walker set out to weaken union power from the get-go. In his first budget, the governor boosted the amount that government employees must pay for their health insurance and pension costs. He also proposed rewriting the state labor law to end automatic dues deductions from paychecks, limit collective bargaining to wages and not benefits, and require that the unions subject themselves to annual recertification votes of their members.
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