Wisconsin GOP wins Round 1 over unions, but final victory still eludes

The Wisconsin GOP-led Assembly approved a bill Friday to sharply curtail the power of public employee unions. But the battle for public opinion, in Wisconsin and the nation, goes on, with the state Senate yet to vote.

M.P. King / Wisconsin State Journal / AP
State Reps. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee (l.) and Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison (r.) shout at the Speaker Pro Tempore of the state Assembly after Republicans cut off debate and voted to end collective bargaining rights for most public workers, at the state capitol in Madison, Wis., early Friday, Feb. 25. The orange T-shirts read, "Assembly Democrats fighting for working families.'

Wisconsin Republicans pushing a plan to end collective bargaining rights for most public workers took a big step forward early Friday. The state Assembly – the lower house of Wisconsin's bicameral legislature – finally passed the measure in a sudden vote after almost 60 hours of debate.

Assembly GOP leaders had warned they were tired of talking about the issue, but Democrats were startled by the abrupt move to a vote and reacted with fury.

“I am incensed. I am shocked,” said Rep. Jon Richards (D) of Milwaukee.

It’s not clear, however, whether this short-term victory for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans will translate into longer-term success, either in Wisconsin or in the larger national debate.

In Wisconsin

Democrats from the state Senate – Wisconsin's upper house – remain on the lam, frustrating efforts to pass the union bargaining rights bill in that chamber.

Right now, both sides of the debate have pushed the volume on their rhetoric all the way up to “stun.” Governor Walker has dispatched state troopers to try to snag fugitive Democratic Senators from their homes, while thousands of drum-pounding protesters opposed to Walker’s efforts continue to jam the state Capitol complex.

Walker remains unapologetic about his role in the controversy, saying that if the budget bill – including the union-limiting measure – does not pass on Friday, he will be forced to begin laying off state workers.

“The 14 Senate Democrats need to come home and do their jobs, just like the Assembly Democrats did,” said Walker in a statement following the vote.

On the national scene

Republicans on Friday said Walker’s confrontational tactics would play well with national voters aware that government needs to cut everywhere in today’s era of fiscal austerity.

They point to a new Rasmussen Reports nationwide survey which finds that only 25 percent of likely US voters approve of Wisconsin Democrats dashing for the Illinois border to deprive their state Senate of a quorum, and 67 percent disapprove.

Even self-described Democrats are divided on this tactic, with 48 percent approving of the move, and 44 percent disapproving.

However, a new Gallup survey finds that while voters have ambivalent feelings towards public sector unions, they oppose depriving those unions of collective bargaining rights by a 2-to-1 margin, 66 percent to 33 percent.

When it comes to balancing state budgets, “The new poll broadly suggests that Americans are not anxious to see state workers take the brunt of the pain – either in terms of reducing their pay or eliminating their collective bargaining rights,” concludes Gallup analyst Lydia Saad.

Thus the Wisconsin battle's long-term effects on national voter attitudes remain unclear, whatever either side says.

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