Wisconsin State Rep. Michelle Litjens, 38, a freshman Republican, delivered the assembly's opening prayer the day the chamber passed Gov. Scott Walker's original budget bill at the end of February. Democratic legislators shouted her down, she said. After the assembly passed the bill, a Democratic legislator, Gordon Hintz, said to her, "You're [expletive] dead." He apologized for the threat after the press reported it. Litjens said she understood that he was exhausted-they had been in session 61 hours straight as Democrats offered 84 amendments to slow the bill's passage-but he had "no excuse." Police provided protection to some Republican lawmakers as they left the chamber after the vote, while Democrats threw papers in the air in frustration.
Litjens was in her office nearly two weeks later on March 9 when the Senate removed the fiscal elements of the budget bill and passed the bill that curtailed collective bargaining for certain public sector unions, without long-absent Democratic senators. The move enraged protestors. The Capitol police came over the intercom urging legislators to leave the building as quickly as possible, but Litjens needed to finish up some work, and disregarded the warning several times until she heard a swelling roar as protestors entered the Capitol.
The police officers told her they didn't have enough manpower to protect her, so a kind Democrat passed her an AFL-CIO button-a fist shaped like the state of Wisconsin-which she pinned on so she could pass through the crowd. On the ground she noticed protestors from Organizing for America, President Obama's campaign organization that opposed the budget bill and the collective bargaining measure. "He didn't teach his people much civility," Litjens said. As she told me this story, after ordering a bowl of cottage cheese with wheat toast, she pulled out the button the Democrat gave her. Now she keeps it in her purse.
The state Capitol is quieter but the fierce protests have enthused Democrats, who are working now to ensure Walker reaps the whirlwind. And not just Walker: The Wisconsin backlash is sending signals to the new crop of Republican governors that are attempting measures similar to Walker's.
So where is the next Wisconsin? Most states are having conversations about cutting pensions and benefits to government employees, even in New York and California. But few are undermining public sector unions' political power like Wisconsin did in the bill the legislature passed, which included a measure ending mandatory dues that partly go to fund unions' political activities. Pennsylvania's Republican legislature has introduced a similar measure forbidding mandatory union dues for public employees, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has said he would support the bill but doubts it will make it to his desk.
Other states are focusing on curtailing collective bargaining power and are reaping a milder whirlwind than Wisconsin so far. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is holding rallies around Ohio, which just passed legislation curtailing public unions' collective bargaining rights. Tennessee's Republican legislature is also working on legislation to limit the education union's collective bargaining. James Sherk, an expert on labor policy at the Heritage Foundation, said Tennessee Republicans "are being somewhat wishy-washy on the issue" but are moving forward because "the Tea Party is holding their feet to the fire."
The reluctance to confront the public sector unions as brashly as Walker did is more understandable in light of the unions' aggressive response in Wisconsin. Thirteen state legislators have been recalled in the history of the United States, but 16 are facing potential recalls right now in the Wisconsin Senate alone. Opponents of Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke recently gathered enough signatures to trigger a recall vote in coming weeks, subject to court challenges. Republicans, too, have gathered enough signatures to trigger a recall for Democratic Sen. Robert Wirch, who was among those who fled the state to prevent a vote on Walker's bill. The Republicans will lose their Senate majority if they shed a net of three seats. Walker could also be subject to a recall once he has been in office a year, but only one governor has been successfully recalled in U.S. history. This is all after Republicans gained sweeping victories at every political level in Wisconsin in November.
The enthused Democratic base also turned out in large numbers for the previously ignored Wisconsin Supreme Court race on April 5. Conservative Supreme Court Justice David Prosser's reelection bid against Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg became a proxy battle over the public union legislation. Kloppenburg implied in her campaign that Prosser is a rubber stamp for Walker. Outside groups poured money into the race, on both sides: Prosser and Kloppenberg could spend $300,000 each in their publicly funded campaigns, but outside groups spent at least $3.1 million on television ads for the race.
The results of the race remain too close to call, with Kloppenburg holding a razor thin advantage over Prosser for the ten-year term. She claimed victory, but her unofficial 204 vote advantage out of almost 1.5 million votes cast will likely trigger a recount, something that Wisconsin hasn't experienced since 1989. Even if Prosser loses, his term doesn't expire until August, by which time he may already have had a chance to weigh in on the collective bargaining legislation that is making its way through the lower courts now. The high turnout and closeness of the vote demonstrated that Democrats are fired up, but Republicans are too, removing credibility from Democrats' description of the vote as a clear rebuke to Walker.
The measure in Walker's legislation that allows individual public sector workers to choose whether to contribute to the union rather than the union automatically receiving dues means that unions will lose a lot of money, and thus political clout. Workers historically like to keep their money. Unions argue that the measure means their members can freeload-be represented without paying dues.
Private sector unions have been losing members and money over the last decade, and they aren't weeping over the public sector's political woes: Forty-four percent of private sector union households in Wisconsin said public sector unions had too much influence in politics, according to a March 3 Rasmussen poll. Only 9 percent of those union households said the unions had too little influence.
Public sector employees make up the majority of union members now. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest union for public employees, gives the most to political candidates of any organization in the country, $87.5 million for the midterms last year. Though Democrats have condemned the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision for opening corporate coffers to Republicans, the decision allowed AFSCME to use its mandated union dues for direct campaign spending, which wasn't allowed before. The heavy spending in the midterms was meant to fend off attacks on "public sector workers as the problem," AFSCME President Gerald McEntee told The Wall Street Journal back in the fall.
"Long term, if you can take the control out of the hands of the union bosses and put the power in the hands of the union members, that's a huge benefit for conservatives," said Heritage's Sherk. On this, unions agree: "Clearly there is a significant interest in undermining the political influence of public employee unions throughout the country," said John Sullivan, associate general counsel of the SEIU, at a recent forum. But Sherk said that weakening public unions' political power goes hand-in-hand with conservatives' efforts to limit the size and scope of government. "The heart and soul of the union movement is basically government bureaucrats lobbying for more government," he said. "It's not the workers on the assembly line anymore."
Litjens says she ran for office in order to limit union lobbying through right-to-work legislation. And in the near term, she acknowledges that she and her fellow Republicans might pay the political consequences and never see another term in office. "People did not vote Republican," she said about the 2010 election. "They voted to fix it."