For the last two weeks, within the dense halls of Wisconsin’s Capitol building, a battle has been raging. While originally stirred after Republican Governor Scott Walker introduced a controversial budget bill, the conflict has evolved into a state suffocating brawl; one, that has pitted public sector employees and their union supporters against Republican politicians. Two weeks ago, in a bold maneuver designed to prevent the labor bill from passing, union workers and lay citizens seized the Wisconsin Capitol building, and Democratic senators fled the state. Early this morning, protesters were given until 4pm to leave the capital buildings, after which time police were to be called in to remove remaining protesters by force. Despite calls for calm, as the day rolled on, the probability of conflict escalated. As one labor union leader noted, “We have the right to be here. This is the people’s house. This is a house of labor. This is a house that Wisconsin built!” Yet in a somewhat anti-climactic manner, 4pm came and passed with little activity. Shortly after 4pm, a temporary impasse was reached, with the authorities notifying protesters that they could remain in the Capitol buildings until tomorrow. So what’s next? Well for one, while both sides rest, the quiet night has given many the opportunity to stop and wrestle with the important questions raised by this pivotal political and economic stalemate. Are the proposed changes to union bargaining rights necessary – as the governor has argued – to stop an over-zealous union who has been accused of using its strength to bludgeon required fiscal reform initiatives? Is the legislation proposed by governor Walker a genuine attack on individual rights and personal freedoms; one, which may be indicative of changes to labor bargaining power which may emerge in other states facing budgetary reform? And finally, what compromises, if any, must be made to bring this prickly issue to a quick and productive conclusion?
When one surveys the crisis, one thing that continues to stand out is the diversity and strength of opinions held by the various actors. Tonight for example, despite defiant challenges from opposition Democratic leaders and union spokespeople, Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker remained assertive, arguing that the proposed legislation contained the right tools necessary for long term fiscal reform and sustainability within the state. In an interview with NBC, the governor argued that “Wisconsin is broke, and unions consistently use their power to block necessary cost-saving measures. It’s about time somebody stood up and told the truth in this state, and said, ‘Here’s our problem, here’s the solution,’ and acted on it. Because if we don’t, we fail to make a commitment to the future.”
While some were sympathetic, others continued to struggle with this position, arguing that the accusations surrounding union blockages were over-stated. In fact, as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka argued later, “This isn’t about the budget crisis.” Rather, as he suggested, these protests are in response to a fundamental assault on collective bargaining rights that are vitally important for the long term productivity of the state and the nation. As Trumka clarified, “Protesters are fundamentally upset with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights. Governors that are willing to sit down and work with their employees can work out problems. We can solve them. But that’s not what Governor Walker is doing. He says, ‘I won’t talk to you.’ ” This strong tone follows similar perspectives expressed by many other union leaders who agree that the governor is using financial arguments as a deceit. In fact, as Randi Weingarten noted in an interview with the American Federation of Teachers, “Workers have already said publicly that they would take the cuts to take-home pay that he has asked for here. So this is a ruse to shift power to his friends, because at the same time what he said was that he wanted to give tax breaks to the friends who put him into power.” So who is correct?
For starters, it is hard to argue that the proposed legislation does not attack the right of workers to collectively bargain. In fact, after reading the Republican bill passed by the Wisconsin Assembly, it is clear that passing of this bill would see the bulk of state workers collective-bargaining rights reduced. As one CNN analyst noted, “Among other things, the measure would require workers — with the exception of police and firefighters — to cover more of their health care premiums and pension contributions. Collective bargaining would be limited to wages, though any pay increases beyond the inflation rate would be subject to voter approval.” On the other hand, a close examination of the state’s public financial records reveals that Wisconsin faced a budget shortfall that requires decisive, coordinated action. Unfortunately, while many residents of the state admit that fiscal revisions are necessary – and are willing to support these changes – the strong rhetoric coming out of many coffee shops, towns, and cities across Wisconsin hint at the fact that many Wisconsin citizens do not believe that Governor Walker’s plan will change the fate of Wisconsin for the better. In fact, many seem willing to wait for a better outcome. Both citizens and political critics have openly criticized Governor Walker as being an idealist who is secretly looking to end the collective bargaining power of employees. These criticisms have prevented the governor from having constructive debate regarding the financial future of the state. Furthermore, many others disagree fundamentally with the argument that reductions in the ability to bargain will lead to increases in fiscal productivity. As one individual noted, that message “is ridiculous because collective bargaining is the way to increase quality, not reduce it.”
With such diametrically opposed opinions, the challenge of predicting how, and when the conflict might be resolved, remains difficult. In fact, as tensions rise and time passes, it is reasonable to believe that a major conflict between the two sides is likely to erupt before the end comes near. With both sides unwilling to bend, the biggest question centers around timing. For now, the best thing that supporters can do is hunker down and wait while the Republican state leadership decides which hand to play next. One can only hope that, for the sake of the state, the people, its businesses, and its children, when those cards are played, the results will help bridge, rather than widen, the economic and political divisions emerging within Wisconsin.
Nathaniel Payne is a researcher and teaching assistant at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business. He is also an instructor in the School of Business at The British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT).