There's little question that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has won this battle in the war over public sector union collective bargaining rights that is now spreading to other states. Republicans on Thursday outmaneuvered their Democratic opponents, ending three weeks of heated protests and the out-of-state flight of Democratic senators who aimed to avoid a vote on the bill. By eliminating spending language in the bill, however, Republicans were ultimately able to pass it without Democrats present.
But while Walker may have won round one, he's lost a few things in the process. To start, he's left an army of his own employees--state workers--apoplectically angry. Not only have they made concessions over their health insurance and retirement benefits, they've now been stripped of their long-standing rights to collectively bargain.
That may be, as he argues, a necessary change to reform the way government works at a time of major budget and deficit crises. But it also leaves him with a workforce that's likely to be disillusioned and unmotivated, which doesn't help the taxpayer either. Decades of research have shown that committed employees who are engaged in their jobs are far more productive and efficient--in other words, they cost less--than those who are not.
Employee productivity and engagement aren't the only things Walker has given up in his quest against the public sector unions. In the process, he's also reawakened an opponent that had otherwise grown lifeless following the stinging midterm defeats. Mike Tate, leader of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin told The New York Times that the bill's passage led to $360,000 in contributions and a stream of volunteers signing up to help at offices where Democrats were collecting signatures for bids to recall Republican Senators. "From a political perspective," Tate told the Times, "he could not have handed us a bigger gift."
And finally, there is the struggle for public opinion, which even with this win, Walker appears to be losing. Multiple polls have shown that while Americans favor concessions from unions, stripping away bargaining rights is something they don't agree with. It's hard to know now how much this could affect future elections, but if Walker is viewed by voters to be overreaching, they could reach for his job, too.
Leadership is about trade-offs, and if Walker believes that taking away union members' bargaining rights is the best way to produce the sort of reforms he is seeking, he may be willing to sacrifice these potential downsides. Only time will tell whether the long-term impact of his efforts will outweigh the risks he's likely to suffer in public opinion, in re-energizing his opponent and in the productivity of his workforce. The only thing we know for sure is that this is just the first round in what's likely to be a lengthy fight, and the leaders who focus on that are likely to fare best.