Among the famous activists who made their way to Madison, Wis., in late February was musician Tom Morello. He had come to join with public employee unions in their protests against Gov. Scott Walker's budget plan and to entertain the crowds. "No matter what Gov. Walker, the Mubarak of the Midwest, says, this land is your land," said Morello on Feb. 21, in between his renditions of protest anthems. "Never give up and never give in!"
Morello first gained fame in the early 1990s as a guitarist for the left-wing rock band Rage Against the Machine. The irony is that, to Republicans in Wisconsin, the government employee unions that Morello supports are the machine; they are, according to Republicans, part of a system that works against the interests of Wisconsin taxpayers.
The debate in Madison entered its second week on Feb. 20, and it included thousands of demonstrators taking up full-time residence in the state capitol and all 14 Democratic state senators fleeing the state in order to deny a quorum for a vote on the budget measure. As events unfolded two things became clear: This fight was about more than closing this year's $137 million state budget deficit, and the results of the fight would reverberate beyond Wisconsin.
The public employee unions emphasized time and again that the issue was not money; they would agree to Walker's plan to raise their pension and healthcare contributions to levels a little closer to those in the private sector, they said, but they would not (as Walker's plan proposed) give up mandatory dues or the power to bargain collectively for benefits. "To include gutting a law that was put into place in 1959, signed by the great Gaylord Nelson, granting public employees the right to collectively bargain is ludicrous," said teacher Mike Lipp of Madison Teachers Inc.
But Walker said anything less would end up being only a short-term fix. He argues that collective bargaining by government workers has created lavish benefits at the expense of taxpayers (as opposed to shareholders of a company), has led to Wisconsin's budget problems, and hamstrings local officials who try to balance budgets without tax hikes. "The system is broken," he told Wisconsinites in a "fireside chat" on Feb. 22. "It costs taxpayers serious money-particularly at the local level."
Walker seemed especially opposed to rules that force public employees to give dues to the unions, saying they amount to a taxpayer subsidy for unions to lobby for more government spending. "It's a vicious cycle," he told the Heritage Foundation.
As both sides refused to budge, polling on the debate has been mixed. A Feb. 21 Rasmussen poll showed 48 percent of voters nationwide supported Gov. Walker while 38 percent supported the unions. On the specific question of collective bargaining by public employees, a Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans opposed restrictions like Walker proposes, but a Clarus Group poll found that 64 percent of registered voters supported them.
Political analysts say the stakes in Wisconsin are high. If Walker's reform plan passes in a liberal state like Wisconsin, then governors elsewhere may be emboldened to reform collective bargaining (which is already restricted for public employees in several states). A similar plan in Ohio is working its way through a Senate committee and drawing thousands of protesters to Columbus. A GOP compromise, on the other hand, might breathe new life into a labor movement that has been wracked by internal divisions and seen its political influence wane in recent elections.
"Wisconsin has become ground zero," Jonathan Williams, fiscal policy director of the American Legislative Exchange Council, told USA Today. "What happens could serve as a domino, win or lose, in either direction."