Wis. State Senate Passes Anti-Union Bill, In End-Run Around Dem Boycott

Capping a dramatic turn of events, the Wisconsin state Senate on Wednesday night passed a new, stripped-down “budget repair bill” — which now excludes all the fiscal elements of the original budget repair bill, and simply includes the original’s provisions to roll back the collective bargaining and organizational rights of Wisconsin’s public employee unions.

With all 14 Democrats absent, having fled the state weeks ago in order to block the three-fifths budget quorum, the bill passed by an 18-1 margin, with only moderate Republican Dale Schultz voting no.

Gov. Scott Walker (R) has released this statement:

“The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused. In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature’s action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government. The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs.”

Meanwhile, state Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate has released this statement, vowing to recall all those Republican state Senators who are eligible under the state’s recall laws, which require at least one year of a term to be completed – and to recall Walker next year:

“Using tactics that trample on the traditions of our Legislature, the Republican leadership has betrayed our state. Republicans have rubber-stamped the desire of the Koch Brothers and their godshead Scott Walker to cripple Wisconsin’s middle class and lower benefits and wages for every single wage-earner in our state. The vote does nothing to create jobs, does nothing to strengthen our state, and shows finally and utterly that this never was about anything but raw political power. We now put our total focus on recalling the eligible Republican senators who voted for this heinous bill. And we also begin counting the days remaining before Scott Walker is himself eligible for recall.”

Earlier, Republicans hastily convened a surprise conference committee, which met for about five minutes to approve the revised bill on a party-line 4-2 vote. The state Assembly, which had previously passed the original bill, is set to take up the revised bill on Thursday.

State Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller (D) who has been in Illinois, released this statement:

“In thirty minutes, 18 State Senators undid fifty years of civil rights in Wisconsin.

“Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten.

“Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people.

“Tomorrow we will join the people of Wisconsin in taking back their government.”

The move is likely to have an enormous political impact in the state, as unions remain an important base of the Democratic Party organization in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the unions and Democrats have been actively organizing recalls of Republican state legislators — leveraging the power of the tens of thousands of people who have protested the bill, and numerous opinion polls showing that Wisconsin voters oppose breaking the unions.

Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Phil Neuenfeldt has released a statement, entitled “Statement on Scott Walker and Republicans’ Despicable, Extreme, Anti-Democratic Activities.” Key quotes:

Tonight’s trampling of the democratic process in Wisconsin shows that Scott Walker and the Republicans have been lying throughout this entire process and we have been telling the truth – that NONE of the provisions that attacked workers’ rights had anything to do with the budget.

Scott Walker and the Republicans’ ideological war on the middle class and working families is now indisputable, and their willingness to shred 50 years of labor peace, bipartisanship, and Wisconsin’s democratic process to pass a bill that 74% of Wisconsinites oppose is beyond reprehensible and possibly criminal.”

So where do things go from here? I am a former six-year Wisconsin resident — having travelled there to attend the state university in Madison, and stuck around for another two years after graduation — and was recently reporting there on assignment for this story. So as someone who absorbed Wisconsin’s culture as an outsider from the Northeast, perhaps I have something to add.

As I’ve previously written, the Democratic Party in Wisconsin is, to an extent that is not true in most other states, a genuine labor party — a party that is intertwined with unions at the institutional level, with many politicians who have also been union officials or done legal work with unions, and which speaks for organized labor in key debates. They in turn compete with the Republican Party, which represents business interests as embodied by the state’s Chamber group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, in what has until now been a sometimes uneasy but nevertheless predictable political system.

In short, unions in Wisconsin are not just economic organizations made up of their respective workers — they are political institutions that are a major part of the state. As such, a change to the state’s union laws that would threaten the existence of organized labor would in turn threaten the existence of the Democratic Party itself in Wisconsin, as people have known it for over half a century — something that state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) may have accidentally alluded to earlier today.

And this is a key reason why a governor taking on public employee unions, which would be popular in many other states, was really lighting a political powder-keg here, and why so many polls showed that the people of Wisconsin, who had just elected Walker and the Republicans, were now on the side of the unions and the Dems. It’s one thing to defeat the unions on financial issues — this is, in part, a major reason that people would elect Republicans in Wisconsin — but to try to hobble and obliterate them really went against people’s sense of fair play and respect for the state’s institutions.

When I travelled there two weeks ago, something really struck me about the atmosphere of the place. An undercurrent of the state that I’d always felt and never truly understood — class consciousness — had now emerged full-scale into class conflict.

Why, I wondered when I lived there, was there always this class undercurrent in a quiet, pleasant part of Middle America? The truth is that until the 1950s or so, Wisconsin was the site of very intense labor strife, the kind that could result in people dying. The state Democratic Party itself places its roots back to two older parties, the state Progressive Party and Milwaukee’s Socialists, who held significant power as the pro-labor forces of the first half of the 20th century. And the state’s very progressive labor laws amounted to something of a ceasefire, with only rare and minor labor unrest that might be found in any other state — but still, the historical memory of the old days remained.

And now, by seeking to roll back those same progressive labor laws as they relate to public employees, Walker and the Republicans have reawakened all of that old ire.

This new reality truly hit home for me at a rally two Saturdays ago, when folk singer Peter Yarrow led tens of thousands of people in a sing-along of “Brother, Which Side Are You On?” and other old populist classics. It was as if the friendly Midwestern state I’d known for six years had suddenly been transformed into a Steinbeck novel.

On top of that, the class consciousness was especially ignited by Walker’s phone call two weeks ago with blogger Ian Murphy, who was posing as Republican financier David Koch. During that call, Walker discussed his ideas for tricking the Democrats into coming back by pretending to negotiate, his ambition to to bust the public employee unions in the mold of President Reagan firing the air traffic controllers, and that he had considered (but ruled out) planting troublemakers in the crowds of protesters. But beyond the specifics, the optics alone were amazing: The state’s governor was seen buddying up to someone he believed to be a mega-rich donor from out of state.

So where do things go now? Well, for one thing, there could be strikes on a significant scale — after all, a legal safety net that had prevented just such events has now been removed. And given the previous polls showing that people sided with the unions and against Walker, it’s not inconceivable that tonight’s maneuver could actually lead to strong support in future polls for strikers, an unusual sight in the nation.

Beyond that, of course, is the major story right now that Democrats are organizing recalls against the eight eligible state Senators. And tonight’s actions now guarantee a lot of grassroots outrage to deliver those petition signatures.

Some of these districts are probably still hopeless for the Dems — but others could be picked up, and potentially flip the Senate from 19-14 GOP over to the Dems. And if that works, things are only getting started — as Tate’s statement made clear, Walker will be the next target in 2012, when he becomes eligible.

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