Two weeks into the political fight of his life, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) shows no signs of backing down. Neither do the protesters camped out at the state Capitol in Madison.
For both sides, the battle over public employee unions – particularly the right to bargain collectively – is fundamental, almost visceral.
Police officials estimated the crowd gathered Saturday to number 70,000-100,000 – large numbers, even for a liberal university town that saw some of the biggest protests against the Vietnam War.
"I've been around Madison for 50 years, and I have not seen anything like it so far," Madison Police Department spokesman Joel DeSpain told the Los Angeles Times. Pro-union sympathy demonstrations were held around the country as well.
As the stand-off continued, Gov. Walker said Sunday that the only alternative to his plan to cut public employee benefits and curtail collective bargaining rights for state workers would be lay-offs.
Majority Republicans in the Wisconsin state Assembly abruptly cut off debate and passed Walker’s bill shortly after midnight Friday morning. But Senate Democrats (also in the minority) are still holed up beyond state borders, denying Republicans the quorum necessary to pass the bill.
Walker threatens layoffs
“If we do not get these changes, and the Senate Democrats don’t come back, we’re going to be forced to make up the savings in layoffs and that to me is just unacceptable,” Walker said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday.
Walker says he’s trying to close a $3.6 billion budget gap for the next two years. That includes cutting $1 billion in payments to local governments as well as cutting the state contribution to workers’ health care benefits and pensions.
Union officials have agreed to that, but Walker doubts their sincerity.
“Over the past two weeks, even after they’ve made those promises, we’ve seen local union after local union rush to their school boards, their city councils … and rush through contracts that had no contribution to the pensions and no contribution to health care,” he said on Meet the Press. “In one case, in Janesville, they were actually pushing through a pay increase.”
So far, there’s no give on either side regarding collective bargaining. (Walker’s plan would limit collective bargaining to wages, but only up to the rate of inflation.)
“Wisconsin does not need a lecture from someone who has never balanced a budget in his life,” Pawlenty said. (It may have been a sign that Republican presidential hopefuls still haven’t decided how cozy to be with the tea party movement that the only other speaker with White House ambitions was Rep. Ron Paul.)
As a presidential candidate, Obama once said, “If American workers are being denied their rights to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll walk on that picket line with you.”
But aside from a brief statement when the protest in Madison began two weeks ago – describing Walker’s plan as “an assault” on unions – Obama has not been drawn into the rhetorical fight over weakening public employee unions.
"The president is one of the greatest politicians in the history of the United States, and he's quiet because he understands that most Americans know that [cutting government employee costs] has to be done," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Sunday on Meet the Press.
Obama stays out of the fight
But Obama’s not speaking up more on the issue does not mean others in his administration have been muzzled.
“We know there’s room for shared sacrifice,” Solis said, referring to “our brothers and sisters in public employee unions.”
“But the governors of Wisconsin and Ohio aren’t just demanding that they tighten their belts, they’re demanding that they give up their uniquely American rights as workers.”
While private sector unions have seen membership drop to about 6 percent in recent years, more than one-third of public employees remain unionized. Experts and analysts debate whether this relates to state budget woes, but it’s a major target for many of the 29 Republican governors.
"There may have been a time, a century ago, where public employees were mistreated and vulnerable and underpaid,” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said on Fox News Sunday. “If that was ever a problem, we have over-fixed it.”