Wisconsin union fight: Did Democrats get their just deserts?

Wisconsin state Senate Republicans took the extraordinary – and possibly illegal – step of rushing a vote that stripped unions of collective bargaining power.

Andy Manis / AP
Wisconsin state Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, talks to protesters in the rotunda of the state Capitol in Madison, Wisc., Wednesday night, after demonstrators retook the Capitol building in wake of the Senate vote to strip collective bargaining writes from most state employees. Thursday morning, the Assembly was poised to pass the bill.

This is the way Wisconsin’s battle over public union rights ended: not with a bang, but with a humungous explosion.

After weeks of standoff, with Badger State senate Democrats camped in Illinois to block a vote in their chamber on a budget bill that included provisions to strip collective bargaining rights from most unions, Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans ended the game by outmaneuvering their opponents.

In a dramatic turn late Wednesday, an ad hoc conference committee of Republicans voted to separate the budget bill from the collective bargaining provisions. Under Wisconsin law, the union-related bill then no longer needed a supermajority to pass the Senate. So GOP state senators called it up and passed it in less than half an hour.

Within hours, thousands of protestors arrived at the state Capitol in Madison. Many spent the night sleeping in the corridors in advance of Thursday’s perfunctory vote in the Assembly approving final passage. Members of the “Wisconsin 14”, the Democratic state senators who have been living in out-state hotels, reacted with fury. One, Sen. Bob Jauch, blasted the move as “political thuggery”.

National conservatives who had backed Governor Walker’s attempt to curb union collective bargaining were elated.

“Wisconsin Democrats got just what they deserved and what they should have seen coming, but nevertheless they are going insane,” wrote John Hinderaker on the popular conservative blog “PowerLine.”

Did the Wisconsin 14 really get what they deserved? After all, there is some question whether what the GOP did is even legal. Wisconsin has an open meetings law which requires 24 hour notice to the public before a conference committee, or any such body, can convene.

That clearly did not happen in this case. But the wording of the open meetings law also may allow two hour notice of such a meeting under extenuating circumstances. Almost certainly Democrats will push the issue and some state court will get to decide whether such circumstances existed.

Republicans insisted that their move fits in the general category of “turnabout is fair play.” The Democrats had used an extraordinary tactical play to block the budget bill in the first place – they fled the state. The GOP then found a similarly extraordinary thing to counter their opponents.

That’s an argument that makes sense to Washington Post “Wonkbook” blogger Ezra Klein, who has generally taken a dim view of Wisconsin GOP efforts to strip public unions of bargaining rights.

“It seems to me that the system worked,” writes Klein.

But there’s a “but” here, in Klein’s formulation. He feels the system worked because Democrats were able to slow the system down and bring lots of state and national attention to the GOP anti-union efforts. The GOP then used its duly-elected power to forge ahead anyway. And now the voters get to decide whether either side should get punished at the polls.

Eight Wisconsin Republican state senators now face recall movements. So do an equal number of senate Democrats. In a year or so, Gov. Walker will become eligible to be recalled, under Wisconsin state law. Polls have shown that state voters don’t approve of the collective bargaining uproar. It will be interesting to see if that feeling fades. Or doesn’t.

Wisconsin 14 member Senator Jauch said Wednesday that he believes Republicans committed “political suicide”.

Walker, for his part, said he had repeatedly tried to get Democrats to return to vote, but been rebuffed.

“I applaud the legislature’s action . . . to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government,” he said in a statement.

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