Wisconsin governor wins his battle with unions on collective bargaining

Demonstrators at the Capitol building in Madison are protesting Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation to cut public employees' benefits and eliminate most of their collective bargaining rights.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2011; 11:18 AM

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has won his drive to strip the state's government workers of nearly all of their collective-bargaining rights, prevailing after a three-week standoff that brought tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol and transfixed the political world.

The new legislation, which Walker signed into law Friday, represents a major setback for organized labor, but the political battle over public employees and their rights to bargain is likely to continue - not only in Madison.

The state Assembly passed Walker's proposal Thursday, a day after Republican senators outmaneuvered the 14 Democratic senators who had fled Wisconsin to deny a quorum needed for passing a budget measure. By stripping the bill of its spending language, they were able to pass it with only Republicans present.

Despite losing the battle in Wisconsin, union leaders said it would have repercussions across the country.

"It's not over. This may be a battle that has been won by the governor, but we are in this for the long haul," said Lee A. Saunders, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which is the nation's largest government-worker union.

Wisconsin was in many ways an unlikely spot for such a political conflagration. The state was the first to grant collective-bargaining rights to its public employees, back in 1959. Only about half the states allow broad collective bargaining for their public employees.

Although Wisconsin has traditionally had liberal and conservative forces, "usually the discourse is much more civil and deliberate, even when there are differences in public policy," said Dennis L. Dresang, the founding director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "If this can happen in Wisconsin, it can happen anywhere."

A number of public polls have indicated that although Wisconsin voters support Walker (R) in his drive to cut state spending, they oppose him on taking away the rights of unions to negotiate.

The public employee unions initially resisted the governor's proposal that workers increase the contributions they make toward their pensions and their health benefits. But last month, they said they would consider that proposal - a move that put the focus of the struggle on the larger issue of collective-bargaining rights.

Walker has argued that local governments and school districts need to be able to rein in the unions if they are to cope with expected cuts in state aid.

"Local governments can't pass budgets on a hope and a prayer," the governor wrote in an op-ed in Thursday's Wall Street Journal. "Beyond balancing budgets, our reforms give schools - as well as state and local governments - the tools to reward productive workers and improve their operations. Most crucially, our reforms confront the barriers of collective bargaining that currently block innovation and reform."

What remains to be seen is whether the Wisconsin saga sets off similar epic battles in other states - or becomes a cautionary lesson. "It's a bit of an inpiration for other governors, but they are also seeing the pounding," said Republican political consultant Mike Murphy.

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