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Goon-Squad Politics: How the Wisc. GOP Trampled Democracy to Appease Wealthy Backers

When Wisconsin's G.O.P. senators couldn't get what they wanted in an open process, they resorted to goon-squad democracy. You got a problem wi' dat?

When Wisconsin Republicans did an end run around Democrats on Wednesday night in order to pass a bill that would strip public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights, they showed themselves to be liars. This was supposed to be about balancing Wisconsin's budget, remember? The collective bargaining rights revocation was all of a piece with an ironically named "Budget Repair Bill," and Gov. Scott Walker, darling of billionaire union-hater David Koch and his astroturf group, Americans For Prosperity, swore up and down that it was only the budget he cared about in this fight.

But when the Democrats in the state Senate frustrated Republicans by skipping town on February 17 to deny Walker's Senate allies the quorum required to vote on a fiscal measure, G.O.P. lawmakers refused to negotiate, and after 20 days of protests by union members and no sign of the Democrats' return, they decoupled the destruction of collective bargaining from the budget bill, made it a separate measure, and then rammed it through in a five-minute special legislative session that appears, in this video, to be in violation of Wisconsin's open meetings law, which requires 24-hour notice prior the opening of such a session.

Make no mistake: This fight was, from the beginning, all about an attempt to destroy unions. When G.O.P. senators couldn't get what they wanted in an open process, they resorted to goon-squad democracy. You got a problem wi' dat?

The Pinkerton process that took place in the Wisconsin Senate was foreshadowed in the way in which the Republicans in the state Assembly resorted to passing the Budget "Repair" bill that stalled in the Senate: they organized their people for a vote called at 1:00 a.m. on February 25, a vote called so quickly that a legislator not tipped off ahead of time to its imminence would have to have had the reflexes of a champion "Jeopardy" contestant to hit her buzzer in time to register a "nay."

Cradle of the Public-Sector Unions

For Koch and his agents, Wisconsin is a special place: a cradle of the American labor movement, and birthplace of the nation's largest public-sector union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, better known by its abbreviation, AFSCME. Until now, Wisconsin offered one of the nation's most labor-friendly environments. To bust the unions in Wisconsin would send a powerful message to the rank and file everywhere -- like a club to the head. As Scott Walker thought he told David Koch in a telephone-punking put on by blogger Ian Murphy, he keeps a baseball bat in his office.

But the unions have not been busted, and the outrageous, strong-arm tactics resorted to by Koch-minion Walker, G.O.P. legislators and Americans For Prosperity may do more to energize the unions and progressives than to demoralize them. The trick for the unions will be, moving into the 2012 election cycle, to maintain the fight for self-preservation while simultaneously mounting the electoral ground game in a presidential campaign year -- all the while being mightily outspent, thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.

Beyond the unions, though, the Pinkerton process may not play well with the public. The American people tend to be a bit complacent about their democracy, but they like having a democracy.

Wisconsin, Nate Silver of the New York Times' 538 blog points out, is a swing state both within and without -- meaning that the state doesn't just swing between Republicans and Democrats in national elections; it does so within its state-level districts. Since picking this fight with public employees and their unions, Walker has seen his approval numbers sink among even Republicans and independents, so it's quite likely that Walker's over-reach will, in the end, cause yet another turnover in the state legislature, which is currently very red.

For Democrats, a reclaiming of that lost turf in Wisconsin would no doubt be sweet, but its impact will be minimal unless the national Democratic Party (and the national labor movement) uses the moment, and the strife leading up to it, as a symbol of the nation's resilient democracy, even as one of the nation's richest men tries to smash it -- to clear the way for an oligarchy of his own making.