Big Labor Stumbles in Wisconsin

In a showdown with Gov. Scott Walker, democracy is the big winner.


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. 

In effect, Walker was calling for state employees to abide by right-to-work laws. The workers could still join unions, but the unions would lack the power to compel dues from those who did not want to join. This would place tremendous strain on Big Labor's resources and power. The weakened unions would in turn weaken the state Democrats who depend on them. 

It was as hardball as politics gets. Walker even exempted the police and firefighter unions from the legislation, precisely because he knew they had the strongest public sympathy and the best relationship with Republicans. (A key reason why Ohio Gov. John Kasich's similar reforms were successfully rolled back by unions in 2011 was that he didn't make this exception.)

Outwardly, Scott Walker was an unlikely catalyst for such a spectacular battle. The 43-year-old former Eagle Scout was an exceedingly mild-mannered technocrat with no prior reputation as a bomb thrower. But when Walker took office, the state had a projected shortfall of $3 billion, about 5 percent of the budget, for the next two years. (Wisconsin has biennial budgets.) The new governor did not want to start off with tax hikes, and the state's constitution requires a balanced budget. 

The problem fell into Walker's lap because money from President Barack Obama's February 2009 stimulus had propped up the state during the previous year and a half, papering over deficits. But now the federal spigot had run dry. 

The unions were not interested in giving anything up. After Walker's election, they pushed the outgoing administration and Democrat-majority legislature to quickly approve new work contracts before Walker and the new GOP majority could be sworn in. The effort failed thanks to a single vote cast by an irascible retiring Senate Democrat. 

When the governor and his aides revealed their union-busting plans to state GOP lawmakers in February 2011, Walker rather naively told them they could rush this through the legislature with a minimum of controversy. Older hands at the state capitol knew better. State Sen. Dale Schultz (R–Richland Center) told Walker, "Come on, people kill each other's dogs over this shit."

While Wisconsin is generally seen as moderate, that's more of a mathematical average than a character of centrism. The state is split between heavily liberal Democrats dominating urban areas such as Madison and strong conservatives controlling the rural parts. The practical effect of this is that the state often swings radically from election to election. Hence a liberal senator like Russ Feingold can be replaced by someone equally conservative, Ron Johnson.

This means that either party's gains at the statehouse can be quickly washed away in the next election. Indeed, during the 2011 fight, the unions actually agreed to Walker's financial concessions, offering them in exchange for dropping the collective bargaining changes. But this wasn't the concession that it appeared to be: The unions knew they could get it all back the next time there was a Democratic majority. Part of what Walker was trying to do was to permanently change the state's politics.

Public controversy grew quickly after Walker's plans were formally announced in February. Within days, the state capitol was a circus. A group of 14 Democratic legislators fled to Illinois in a bid to prevent the bill's passage by making a quorum impossible. Daily Show correspondent John Oliver even tried to mount a visual gag linking the Wisconsin protests to the Arab Spring by bringing a camel to the capitol. The stunt misfired when the camel got its leg stuck in a fence and panicked.

Yet as rowdy as the Wisconsin protests were during the spring, they never got out of control. Astonishingly, there were only a few arrests. "The masses of people remained overwhelmingly peaceful and generally respectful, and that wasn't accidental or simply spontaneous," Stein and Marley write. "Unions assigned people to self-police their protests and try to intervene before problems developed. When the Senate convened, urgent messages on Twitter called on demonstrators to remain calm and respectful to law enforcement, emphasizing how damaging any act of disrespect or violence could be for their cause."

In other words, protesters policed themselves well because they knew how quickly a negative YouTube moment could go viral. This is a point to which the authors repeatedly return: It only looked from afar like the situation was out of control. 

Still, there was little doubt that Walker would eventually win. He had solid GOP majorities in both chambers of the legislature. When it became clear they couldn't get the 14 AWOL Democrats to return to provide a two-thirds quorum, Republicans simply tweaked the bill until they could pass it with a bare majority. Walker signed it, and that was that. The chanting crowds could not reverse the fact that the voters had already given Walker his majority. 

The protesters then sought to overturn the package at the ballot box. But despite three separate recall votes during the next year, they failed. Walker actually managed to win his own recall vote by a larger margin than he won election in the first place.

But if Walker was making a power play, the unions were moving to jealously guard their power—power that wasn't exactly little "d" democratic in the first place. They were, after all, arguing for their right to extract money directly from the taxpayer-funded paychecks of workers who had never wanted to join in collective bargaining.

In post-circus Wisconsin, it appears that many government workers have voted with their feet. Labor Department filings since More Than They Bargained For was published show that AFSCME Council 40—one of the union's four branches in the state—has gone from 31,730 members in 2011 to just 20,488 now. AFSCME Council 48 went from 9,043 members to just 3,498 during the same time period. (The other two state branches, like most public-sector unions, are not subject to the disclosure requirement, which applies only to unions that represent at least some private-sector workers.)

Some of those workers presumably dropped out because Walker's reforms strictly limited what AFSCME's bargaining could get for them. But if labor solidarity were as strong as the chanting crowds claimed, the declines should not have been that drastic so soon after the reforms passed. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that recall-election exit polls show that Walker got support from 28 percent of union members. A nontrivial minority apparently appreciated getting the choice of whether to join a union.

Stein and Marley's book is a fairly straightforward account, benefiting from their broad knowledge of the state's nuanced politics. The authors bust a few myths, such as the widely held belief that the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Koch brothers—left-wing bogeymen—were involved in writing Walker's legislation. In fact, it was the governor's own idea. His primary inspiration was Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who rescinded collective bargaining for state employees on his second day in office in 2005.

The book is filled with amusing anecdotes. One Senate Democrat left for Illinois so abruptly that he didn't have time to tell his wife, who had left a crockpot on and had to call a neighbor to get it turned off. Some Republican lawmakers snuck out of the capitol at night by donning hoodies, picking up signs, and pretending to be protesters.

Stein and Marley do lament the decline of bipartisanship that accompanied all this ruckus. "Compromise…had become a 'dirty word,'?" they write. But it is far from clear that a compromise would have done anything more than delay the inevitable policy reckoning of increasing labor payouts vs. decreasing government revenue. And the extremely high level of civic engagement would not have happened without an emotionally contested battle. There's a reason "politics as usual" is usually boring. 

No one can argue that the substantive issues in Wisconsin did not receive a full airing, or that voters were not aware of the policy consequences. This is what democracy looks like.

The protesters may even have done Walker a favor. Had he been able to ram his bill through as originally intended, the governor wouldn't have had a chance to publicly make his case or prove his mettle.

One reason the political class tends to shy away from divisive politics is that one side always stands to lose badly, which is something fans of Walker's actions should bear in mind. His fate could have easily turned out more like that of Ohio's John Kasich, whose reforms were ground into dust by Big Labor.

But sometimes it's better to have clear winners and losers. If Walker's reforms succeed, voters in and out of Wisconsin will have an example of how American policy and politics can change for the better. If not, they'll know who to blame.