Throughout the 20th century, Wisconsin was on the cutting edge of workers’ rights—among the first to enact workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and collective bargaining.
Perhaps then, it is fitting that the Badger State spent the past year and a half as ground zero in the showdown between the workers’ rights movement and the vast corporate power structure represented by men like David and Charles Koch, principal owners of mega-company Koch Industries and patron saints of unfettered corporatism.
The infamous Koch brothers personally spent over $700,000 on television ads defending Governor Scott Walker against the unsuccessful effort to recall him, in addition to the unknowable amount they presumably directed to pro-Walker super PACs. The full cost of keeping Walker as governor was reported at somewhere around $30 million, outstripping anti-Walker spending seven times over.
Walker’s continued employment will no doubt embolden the anti-union factions in this country, as well as further convincing uber-rich ideologues that they can simply purchase the libertarian paradise of their dreams. While the fire hose of cash that has been turned against collective bargaining rights all across the nation will continue to have a marked impact, it would be a mistake to view the Wisconsin recall as a harbinger of things to come nationally.
The seed for recall was planted in Jan. 2011, when the Wisconsin legislature passed a tax cut package totaling approximately $67 million. The next month, Governor Walker declared a budget crisis, caused in no small part by the tax cut package he enthusiastically supported and signed into law, and put forth a piece of legislation he pitched as the only practical solution. Included in this ‘budget repair’ bill was a wholesale redefinition of the relationship between the state and its employees.
Centrally, the bill severely restricted the right of nearly every public employee—with the notable exception of firefighters and law enforcement personnel—to collectively bargain regarding wages and health care. University Of Wisconsin faculty and staff, hospital employees, and home health and child care workers were completely stripped of collective bargaining rights. Other state employees maintained nominal rights, but with restrictions so draconian as to make actual collective negotiation virtually impossible.
In addition to limiting the means by which public employee unions could collect dues, Governor Walker’s bill went so far as to require those organizations to make the actual paying of dues voluntary. This led to a drastic drop in revenue for public unions, forcing sizeable cuts to staff. In Aug. 2011, the largest teachers union in Wisconsin announced layoffs affecting 40 percent of its staff.
Though a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in March of this year struck down most of the restrictions on collecting dues, unions still find themselves hamstrung by robust limitations on what terms they can actually negotiate. Wage increases are limited by caps based on the consumer price index, and the terms of health care compensation are strictly locked into place by the bill.
And if that wasn’t enough, unions are further rendered toothless by a requirement to be recertified yearly to maintain collective bargaining status—a process wide open to manipulation by deep pocketed people with anti-union agendas.
Such a policy was bound to meet with fierce opposition in a state once known as a national leader in workers’ rights, and, sure enough, 2011 was marked by massive protests—at times reaching nearly 200,000 people. Alongside the protests, a storm of legal maneuvering ensued, ending with a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling upholding the law.
Failure in both legislative chamber and courtroom led opponents of the policy to try their luck at the ballot box, enacting a series of recall elections targeting supporters of the bill, including Governor Walker himself. While the recall effort did eventually flip the state senate to the Democrats—a somewhat meaningless victory as it’s highly unlikely there will be another senate session before the November vote—Scott Walker maintained his lease on the governor’s mansion in Madison.
Much of the body politic seems to be interpreting the Wisconsin results—alongside a pair of anti-union measures regarding pension protection that passed in California on the same day—as a sign of things to come regarding collective bargaining (not to mention the Obama reelection effort), however a couple of key points undercut that view.
Firstly, the recall election was not a vote on the actual policy itself, but a decision whether to remove the governor from office. Had the results gone the other way, the legislation would have still remained in effect until repealed by the legislature. In fact, exit poll data showed a significant number of voters who opposed Walker’s anti-union legislation but voted against the recall on principle, viewing it as an inappropriate way to address policy conflicts.
Also, those same exit polls indicated that if the exact same electorate that kept Walker as governor had been voting for president, Barack Obama would have won handily.
Had Wisconsinites been able to directly vote on the collective bargaining policy through referendum—as Ohioans did in November of last year—the Wednesday morning talking heads may well have been singing a different tune.