The battle in Wisconsin is about much more than public workers' pay. It's about the future of American government
Before Wisconsin State Representative Nick Milroy was tackled by police on the night of Thursday, Mar. 3, he spent the day at his desk, visiting with his constituents in a parka, a knit hat, and mittens. He had hauled the desk from his office onto the snow-blotched lawn outside the State Capitol in Madison. Before him were the usual accessories: pictures of his family, fliers, and business cards. He was flanked by the American and Wisconsin flags. Next to him, Representatives Cory Mason and Fred Clark were also holding office hours in their swivel chairs, having defied a demand from the assembly's chief clerk to return their office furniture to their offices.
The Capitol had been effectively shut for four days as the extreme game of politics in Madison continued, a spectacle that is riveting taxpayers—and the public servants who work for them—nationwide. At this point hardly anyone needs reminding of the story line. On Feb. 11, newly elected Governor Scott Walker proposed a "budget repair bill" that imposed pay cuts on public-sector employees in the form of larger paycheck deductions for pensions and health care, and stripped public-sector unions of most of their collective bargaining rights in an effort, he said, to allow municipalities to hold down their labor costs. In a direct attack on the power of the unions, the bill would forbid them from automatically deducting dues from worker paychecks. To prevent the bill from coming to a vote, the entire Democratic state Senate minority—14 senators in all—fled to neighboring Illinois. Their supporters filled the Capitol in protest, with hundreds sleeping over. Walker and the legislature's Republican leaders responded with siege tactics, passing a rule requiring that representatives pick up their paychecks in person, issuing arrest warrants for the missing Democrats, locking the Capitol and ringing it with police, and finally, on Mar. 9, executing a clever piece of parliamentary trickery. They stripped the collective bargaining provision out of the budget repair bill so it could be voted on without a quorum, and passed it.
A week before, out on the lawn, Milroy affected the demeanor of a man just trying to do his job under difficult circumstances. A Navy veteran and former fisheries biologist, he said he was unfazed by the cold. Madison, he pointed out, was five and a half hours south of his hometown of Superior, on the Great Lake of the same name. "This is like a nice summer day to me," he bragged, in the unmistakable lilt of the upper Midwest.
Within the Capitol, the proceedings had a similarly inside-out quality, as protesters chanted, sang, played drums, deployed yogic oms, and—though few gave the impression of being gainfully employed—conducted long conversations about the sanctity of workers' rights. There were about 60 holdouts camped out on the ground floor, mostly in their late teens or twenties. Many were unkempt and unshaven, but comfortably so, as if they usually looked that way. Some wore pajamas, others had inked hash-marks onto their arms for each day they'd passed there—a few had gotten up to 17. None had left the building since the weekend. They talked about staying until the 14 Senate fugitives returned, though it was unclear whether that would be a sign of victory or defeat.
The protesters had done their best to domesticate the marble and granite of the rotunda, covering the walls and the balustrade with flags and posters exhorting solidarity with the state's public employees, or signs attacking Walker and his many proposed budget cuts. Between the columns were sleeping bags and backpacks and piles of clothing, crates of clementines, an assortment of chips and energy bars and bagels. A bottle of hand sanitizer was taped to the wall, as was a signup sheet for cleaning duty. There was a charging station for phones and laptops, and a box of board games.
By 5 o'clock, most of the protesters were sitting in the open area directly under the 200-foot rotunda dome. Three stood to one side softly singing This Land Is Your Land, then America the Beautiful, then the national anthem. A veritable NATO peacekeeping force of law-enforcement officers, from all over the state—highway patrolmen, city police, sheriff's deputies, university police, and even game wardens—stood guard along the walls and the mezzanine above. They chatted with each other and, from time to time, with the protesters. Democratic assemblymen showed up in support, and, as if incidentally, to talk to the half dozen reporters milling around.
That night turned out to be the end of the occupation—a County judge ruled shortly before 6 p.m. that the Capitol had to be open to the public, but only during business hours. After three hours of discussion and speeches, much patient cajoling by the chief of the Capitol police, and a couple of outbreaks of chanting, the protesters decided that they could, in good conscience, leave. "We've done something that's unprecedented in American political activist history!" exulted a sandy-haired young man in a lime-green T-shirt that read Graduate Employees Organization, perhaps having forgotten that the Democrats were still in Illinois.
Drumming and belting out the union anthem Solidarity Forever, the departing protesters paraded across the rotunda, television cameras trailing them like a school of blunt black fish, then out the doors and into the exultant crowd outside—all but one pale, dreadlocked girl who lingered just off the rotunda for another hour, wet-eyed, seemingly unable to leave.
Shortly after, Representative Milroy tried to walk back inside to get some clothes from his office. He seemed to be in a hurry and didn't properly identify himself. The police, taking him for a trespasser, wrestled him to the ground in the shadow of the pillars of government. There was video, of course, and it quickly made its way to the Internet, another chapter in the surreal serial drama known as the Battle of Wisconsin.
Madison, named after the father of the United States Constitution, has for nearly a month been in a crisis of governance that pits activists who claim to represent workers against politicians who claim to represent taxpayers. At its most basic level, the battle is about what the country wants from its government, what it wants for its workers, and who will pay for it all. According to the state budget director, Wisconsin faces a two-year budget shortfall of $3.6 billion. And so it is around the nation. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, reports that states overall are facing at least $112 billion in budget shortfalls for the fiscal year 2012. Further out, depending on how you calculate it, they face unfunded pension liabilities between $700 billion and $3.2 trillion. And states, unlike the federal government, can't print money.
In Wisconsin and other states, the debate is not just about the salaries of school teachers, sanitation workers, firemen, and police, none of which are particularly eye-popping. It's about the fringe benefits—from job protection and limited workweeks to good health-care plans and pensions—that make union life sweet, and that, conservatives complain, not only blow holes in budgets but make public workers immune to the disciplining power of the free market. It's a conversation the entire nation is having, though nowhere so dramatically as in Wisconsin—at least not yet.
"Things are getting tough all over," said Zach Keady, a union electrician who had come in from Kansas City to protest the budget. "We're going to have this issue in Missouri soon enough."
Wisconsin seems an unlikely battleground. It's a well-run state where residents pay relatively high taxes for services that, for the most part, work—a health-care program, BadgerCare, that is nationally admired; good, comparatively inexpensive public universities; and a public employee pension that, unlike almost every other states', is by some estimates fully funded (and by others very nearly so). That means that the public services on the chopping block are widely loved, and the people who provide them are proud of what they do. And it means that those who want to cut them anyway are driven by a particularly pure sense of purpose.
On Saturday, Mar. 5, the protest, which had dwindled during the week, swelled again, with various progressive celebrities—the filmmaker Michael Moore, the singer Michelle Shocked—adding their luster. In an address to the crowd outside the Capitol, Moore took issue with the Republican mantra that "Wisconsin is broke." "Wisconsin is not broke!" he thundered. "The country is awash in wealth and cash. It's just that it's not in your hands. It has been transferred, in the greatest heist in history, from the workers and consumers to the banks and the portfolios of the über-rich."
By early afternoon there were tens of thousands flowing in a counterclockwise current around Capitol Square. They sang songs and carried signs: "Stop the war on workers," read a popular one printed up by various unions.
Dozens of signs portrayed Walker as a puppet of the Koch brothers, the billionaire industrialists and funders of conservative causes. A few compared him to Darth Vader, to George W. Bush, to Osama bin Laden, to Hitler. Some even compared him to Charlie Sheen.
Other homemade signs called attention to more specific aspects of Walker's proposed budget and his budget repair bill, suggesting that even the wonks were angry. Patricia Rubert-Nason was one. A PhD student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's chemical engineering program, she was wearing a dark pantsuit, large snowboots and spectacles. She carried a sign that took a half a minute to read in its entirety, pointing out how Walker's budget repair bill, along with his proposed two-year budget, would put state power plants up for sale to private buyers without public bidding, how it would remove oversight of BadgerCare and privatize the state's Commerce Dept. Similar signs highlighted the weakening of environmental laws and the elimination of state-mandated recycling in Walker's budget.
A few protesters carried inflatable palm trees, a pointed reference to a segment about the protests that had aired on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor, showing unlabeled footage of violent protesters pushing and shoving. The only clue that the video had in fact been shot in California, rather than Wisconsin, was the palm trees visible in the background.
Groups gathered underneath windows thought to be Republican offices and yelled up at them when someone moved behind the blinds. "We're here to help our Koch-addicted governor!" shouted a man with a necromancer's gray beard. "Hey Scott! Your wife's crazy!" another chimed in.
Many in the circling crowd were union members, of course, from Wisconsin or elsewhere—private-sector electricians, steelworkers, construction workers, and teamsters—who saw Walker's attack on public-sector unions as an assault on their own rights. There were columns of off-duty firemen and policemen, even though some state firefighter and police unions had supported Walker's campaign, and he had exempted both branches from his proposed cuts. Others were simply outraged Madisonians, some with children or pets in tow. Plenty were Wisconsin public workers, teachers, and administrators from various agencies—those most directly affected by the bill, whose pay would be cut, and whose collective bargaining rights would be taken.
Joseph Hamele, a prison guard from Oxford, a village an hour north of Madison, came in his uniform, along with his wife. He carried a sign that said, "Wisconsin has a crisis alright, it's Scott Walker." Hamele is 56, burly with a brush cut and a neat, thin white mustache; before he was a prison guard he'd worked at a manufacturing plant (since relocated to Mexico), then for 10 years at a foundry. He'd taken the job at the prison when some co-workers at the foundry were laid off. Guard jobs don't pay particularly well, he said—around $38,000, "not a lot for what we put up with"—but they promise stability and decent benefits. As it turned out, corrections officers benefits had been a particular rhetorical target of Walker's. In a press release on the costs of collective bargaining, he had mentioned how corrections workers were able to call in sick for a shift, then work the very next shift at overtime wages, a practice known as "sick-leave stacking."
As Hamele saw it, he, like a lot of people, had made a choice, and now Governor Walker and the Republicans were changing the terms of the deal. This point came up again and again among the protesters. Times were tough, they knew that—that's why the state employees' union had agreed to the increased deductions for pensions and health care that Walker was proposing. It was something else entirely to go after collective bargaining, the power that put the "organized" in organized labor—to destroy the leverage that workers in a union could get from negotiating as a single entity.
What most frustrated many of the marchers in Madison, what seemed genuinely to pain and perplex them, was their feeling that all the anger and outrage behind a Republican wave that had, for the first time in 72 years, flipped the governorship and both houses of the state legislature from blue to red, was being directed at the wrong people. Middle-class public-sector workers were being portrayed as the winners in a grim economic climate because they weren't quite as deeply screwed as everybody else. That the private sector was brutal to workers, they argued, did not mean the public sector had to be brutal, too.
It was all the wrong way around, they said; the private-sector workers should be marching for more rights, not stripping them from public unions. To the protesters, the real winners, and therefore the real villains, were Wall Street fat cats, and wealthy industrialists like the Koch brothers.
But the voters had elected Scott Walker, and the Tea Partiers were bent on slashing the size of government, and they didn't see unions as a way to fight to get the middle class a bigger share of the economy's spoils. Instead, protesters complained, these middle-class conservatives tended to see public-sector workers, and their unions, as the competition in a battle over an economic pie that was inexorably shrinking.
The day before, a truck driver and former auto worker named Ed McIntyre told a joke to make the point. There are three guys—a wealthy banker, a union worker, and a non-union worker—sitting at a table with a dozen cookies on it. The banker eats 11 of them, then turns to the non-union worker and says, "Hey, that union guy's trying to take your cookie."
Wisconsin is famous for its liberal politics. The German immigrants who settled here in the 19th century brought with them Bismarck's ideas about the broad social welfare responsibilities of government; Wisconsin was the first state to impose an income tax, the first to offer workers' compensation. In 1910, Wisconsin's 5th congressional district elected the nation's only congressman from the American Socialist Party. The state's governor, then senator, in the early decades of the 20th century was Robert La Follette Sr., perhaps the nation's preeminent progressive politician, a pacifist and staunch enemy of the trusts and the moneyed establishment. In time, the term the "Wisconsin Idea" came to describe a brand of liberal politics fed by social scientific expertise. In 1959, Wisconsin was the first state to give public employees collective bargaining rights—the rights that, 50 years later, Walker is proposing to mostly revoke.
Wisconsin, however, has created its share of conservatives, too. It is the state that bred and elected Joseph McCarthy, and Milwaukee is home to the Bradley Foundation, a leading conservative advocacy organization. The 1939 Employment Peace Act, which limited the power of unions, served as a model for the federal Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, a law, still in effect, prohibiting wildcat strikes and allowing states to pass "right-to-work" laws letting independent workers join unionized industries. In the 1950s, Herbert V. Kohler Sr., president of his family's massive plumbing products company, became a national conservative hero when he faced off with the unions in one of the country's longest and most brutal strikes.
The place to find supporters of Governor Walker that weekend was not at the Capitol. There was but one demonstrator with an "I Support Walker" sign covered in American flag stickers, and he walked off briskly when approached for an interview. On Sunday, however, at a convention center just across Monona Bay from downtown Madison, the conservative organization Americans for Prosperity (funded in part by David and Charles Koch's family foundation) held a rally for the last stop in a statewide "Stand Against Spending, Stand with Walker" bus tour.
Pro-union protesters had heard about the event, and a couple hundred showed up to chant and wave signs at the entrance—a no-doubt befuddling experience for the many people there to attend a home improvement trade show in one of the exhibition halls.
The Americans for Prosperity rally started at 1 p.m. in a low-ceilinged, medium-sized conference room off a narrow hallway. The volunteers working the door kept out anti-Walker infiltrators by making guests sign a petition in support of the governor before they went in. That suspicion extended to journalists: A few requests for interviews were met with stony stares, and many of the people who did speak wouldn't give their names. A stout woman with short gray hair took it upon herself to examine press credentials.
The room was packed; AFP estimated attendance at around 700 people. Many in the crowd, which was overwhelmingly white, had come from smaller surrounding towns. (The protests at the Capitol had been only slightly less monochromatic.) The one exception here was Bob He, a 55-year-old Chinese-American engineer, and his wife. His English was choppy, but when asked why had come he said the same thing everyone else there did: He was there to support Scott Walker. "We're all equal, it's not public employees are more equal. They should pay for their retirement like other workers, it's not taxpayers who should pay," he said. "I'm from China. I hate big government, you know why." Later he mentioned a quote he had remembered from the "cartoon movie" Animal Farm: " 'Some animals are more equal.' I think it's the pigs."