Wisconsin collective bargaining: Will Walker win the battle but lose the war?

Wisconsin standoff: As Gov. Scott Walker ratchets up the stakes, preparing to lay off 1,500 state workers to win the battle against the unions, he may be losing the war of public opinion.

Andy Manis / AP
Wisconsin Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald (R) of Juneau, signs orders finding the 14 missing Democrats in contempt and subject to arrest on sight, at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisc., on March 3.

The siege of Wisconsin continues – Republican Gov. Scott Walker and 14 absent Democratic state senators remain in a standoff over a budget bill that would strip most public union workers of collective bargaining rights.

This thing has been going on for over two weeks now. Who’s winning?

The better question might be, is anybody winning?

Walker’s budget is still stuck in the legislature. The footloose Democrats are camped out across the border in Illinois, without the comforts of home. Public employee unions, which have already agreed to wage and benefit cuts, now face layoffs. Meanwhile, national polls generally show that the US public doesn’t approve of eliminating collective bargaining for public workers – as GOP lawmakers are moving to do in Indiana and Ohio, as well as Wisconsin.

That’s kind of a mess, winner-picking-wise.

But one thing seems clear: Governor Walker has successfully increased the pressure on the other side. Wisconsin state workers on Friday braced for the 1,500 layoff notices Walker says he must issue since his budget bill hasn’t passed. The Wisconsin state Senate has declared the 14 fugitive Democrats (“fleebaggers” in GOP parlance) in contempt and subject to arrest on sight. A judge has ordered police to clear the Wisconsin capitol of overnight demonstrators, after 15 days of sleep-in protesting. (Protestors can return during the day, however.)

Walker shows no signs of backing down, and he does not need to worry about keeping a political coalition together to keep the fight going. That makes him better positioned than the Democrats to keep up the pressure – to keep going up the escalation ladder, to resort to a phrase from nuclear deterrence theory. That means he may be more likely to prevail, eventually.

Wisconsin GOP leaders, for their part, insist that Democrats are already wavering, and looking for an exit strategy. Or at least a strategy to exit from their Illinois motels.

“I think a lot of them are trying to find their way back to Madison,” said state Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (R) of Wisconsin in a Thursday interview on Fox News.

But that’s just one way of looking at it. You could also argue that Democrats have managed to draw enough publicity to the issue to greatly complicate Walker’s efforts. It’s possible that Wisconsin voters will blame him, not the absent Democrats, for overreaching and creating the whole standoff in the first place.

And national voters don’t appear to approve of what’s going on in Wisconsin. While polls show most US residents don’t really like unions overall, most recent surveys indicate that – by 2 to 1 margins – they oppose the effort in Wisconsin to strip collective bargaining rights from public workers. So if they hand Democrats this issue for 2012, a GOP victory in the Badger State could prove pyrrhic.

Interestingly, a national survey released Wednesday found respondents split as to whether the collective bargaining rights of public employees in general should be reduced in the name of deficit reduction.

The difference? In that survey, the question came after a series of other questions dealing with state budget troubles, and did not refer specifically to Wisconsin. This suggests that the national political outcome of the struggle will depend on which side succeeds in framing the issue to their liking.

Of course, you could say the same thing about many national political issues.

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