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The Wisconsin Story: Scott Walker's Unprecedented Assault on Unions and Democracy And the June 5th Recall Vote

Wisconsin's populist rebellion came after state GOP leaders attacked workers' rights and dignity.
 
 
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“The folks that were angry about this started a recall....Not hundreds, not thousands, but tens of thousands of ordinary people did an extraordinary thing. They stood up and took their government back.” -- Gov. Scott Walker, discussing the 2002 recalls that led to his election as Milwaukee County Executive. 

Those words, uttered by Wisconsin Republican Gov. Walker in an ad during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, are strikingly relevant today. 

In a 60-day period during a cold Wisconsin winter, state residents collected nearly one million signatures for Walker’s recall, with an election date now scheduled for June 5. That election, which will likely be very close and will almost certainly break new records for spending in the state, will end this stage of a year-and-a-half-long battle over Walker’s divisive "reforms," including his controversial attack on public employee unions.  
 
When Walker first announced his plans to roll back collective bargaining rights on February 11, 2011, he anticipated the fight would be over in less than a week. Claiming the state was broke (just weeks after cutting the corporate tax rate), Walker announced Act 10 on a Friday and planned a vote the following Wednesday, leaving almost no time for public debate or deliberation. He even scheduled a bill signing at the end of the week. 
 
Things did not go according to plan. The events of the following week were pivotal in changing the course of Wisconsin history and sparking a democracy movement across the country. 
 
On Monday, February 14, the University of Wisconsin’s graduate assistants' union and their students marched from campus to the state capitol with Valentines expressing love for their university and support for their teachers’ right to bargain. Their message was clear: “All public sector workers are under attack. Faculty and staff are under attack. The UW as a whole is under attack. With these extreme acts, Scott Walker is seeking to undermine the labor peace of 50 years….You need to get active now!” Their commitment and organizing is widely viewed as essential to sparking the fire that continues to burn. 
 
Public hearings on the bill started the following day and thousands lined up to testify. Republicans quickly abandoned the hearings but Democrats remained to listen to citizens testify through the night and into the next day (and eventually into the following day, and the next, for weeks). The state constitution requires that the doors of the capitol must stay open whenever the legislature is in session, so the capitol sleep-in began as those waiting to testify set up camp on the marble floors of the capitol. This act of occupying the capitol became a signature part of the Wisconsin protests, and helped inspire the tactics later used by the Occupy movement.
 
On Wednesday, public school teachers from around the state called in sick and came to the capitol to protest, shutting down schools in districts statewide. High school students marched on the statehouse to decry the attack on their teachers' collective bargaining rights. On the other side of the world, Egyptians were rising up against the Mubarek regime, and signs like “Cairo is cold in winter” and “Walker like an Egyptian” (a play off the Bangles song) were seen in the crowd.
 
It could have all been over on Thursday. Republicans had a 19-14 majority in the Senate and the votes to pass Act 10 without a single Democrat. As the Senate convened that morning to put the nail in the coffin of public employee unions in Wisconsin, the Democrats were...gone. The 14 Senate Democrats fled across state lines into Illinois early Thursday morning, depriving Republicans of the quorum necessary to take a vote and pass the bill. This act by the Fab 14, as they came to be known, prolonged debate on the bill, and the longer it remained on the floor, the more Wisconsinites came to realize what was really in it. The Fab 14 allowed the fight to continue.
 
And it did. Each day of this first week, the crowds grew from around 1,000 on Monday to 25,000 on Wednesday to 40,000 on Friday. State residents who had previously paid little attention to politics and who had never participated in a protest were shocked as they came to recognize what Walker and the Wisconsin GOP were trying to do, and carpooled to Madison from towns and cities across the state. An unseasonably warm Saturday saw 70,000 people descend on the capitol square, the largest protests seen in Wisconsin since Madison was at the center of protests over the Vietnam War. 
 
Ongoing Protest and Solidarity
 
But in contrast with the Vietnam-era protests and the Occupy protests to come, the Wisconsin protests were incredibly conflict-free. There were only a handful of arrests throughout weeks of demonstration and with hundreds of thousands of protesters. Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney famously told Walker his police department “would not be the palace guard” and refused to suppress the grassroots uprising. Off-duty law enforcement officers donned “Cops for Labor” T-shirts and marched alongside students, teachers, farmers, the elderly, and firefighters. 
 
Walker had not planned it this way. He did his best to divide and conquer, attacking collective bargaining rights for teachers, snowplow drivers, nurses, and other public employees, but exempting law enforcement and firefighters. It backfired. 
 
“Firefighters are taught that when there’s an emergency you don’t run away from it, you run to it,” said Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the state firefighters union, at rallies throughout the protests. “This is the emergency. They’re trying to burn down the house of labor, and we won’t let them do it.” (Mitchell, the youngest and first African-American president of the state firefighters' union, recently declared his candidacy for lieutenant governor in the recall election against Walker.)
 
Despite the peaceful nature of the protests and the solidarity between demonstrators and law enforcement, right-wing media went out of its way to portray the Wisconsin uprising as violent. Fox News’ Mike Tobin claimed he was “hit” by a protester while taping a segment at the capitol, but it did not happen (I was there and can also attest that he was not hit). Bill O’Reilly spliced in footage from an altercation in California – with palm trees in the background – as they discussed the Wisconsin protests. Palm trees became an enduring symbol in Wisconsin of right-wing spin and misleading portrayals of what really was happening in the state.
 
Protests continued throughout the following weeks. During the day, the capitol rotunda was filled with drumming and chanting, and in the evening, people snuggled into sleeping bags and curled up on the floor. Ian’s Pizza received orders for delivery to the capitol from all 50 states and dozens of countries around the world. 
 
On Monday of the uprising’s second week, Walker accepted a phone call from a person he believed to be David Koch, who asked how the governor’s efforts to “crush that union” were going. The caller was actually Ian Murphy, a blogger from the Buffalo Beast, who recorded the conversation. Walker had reportedly refused to return phone calls with Democratic legislators, but he gleefully accepted a call from “David Koch,” and chattered for 20 minutes about how he considered planting “troublemakers” in the crowd, how he would not budge or negotiate, and how he was being courageous, just like Ronald Reagan. Walker also asked that Koch have “his guy on the ground” – presumably Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips – organize rallies and encourage people “to call lawmakers and tell them to hang firm with the governor.” 
 
Prior to the prank phone call, many Wisconsinites had never heard of the Koch brothers, despite Koch Industries being one of Walker’s top donors in 2010, and David Koch having given $1 million to the Republican Governor’s Association (which in turn spent almost $5 million on the race in Wisconsin). But the Koch connection became apparent after recordings of the call went public, and Koch references soon started appearing on handwritten signs at Wisconsin rallies.
 
The protests reached 100,000 the next Saturday and the capitol occupation continued. The following week, the Walker administration tried to shut down the capitol and defied a court order to re-open it; Walker then introduced a biennial budget bill with massive cuts to K-12 education and the state Medicaid program, as well as eliminating in-state tuition for undocumented university students and a registry for home healthcare providers. 
 
The week after that, in a barely announced meeting, Republican senators rapidly stripped Act 10 of “fiscal” provisions but kept the collective bargaining limits, which allowed them to pass the bill without a quorum (and without the 14 Democratic senators). The Assembly passed the stripped-down bill days later and Walker signed it into law. But Wisconsinites were undeterred. That Saturday, around 150,000 people marched on the capitol in protest and to welcome home the 14 Democratic senators who had fled the state.  
 
Staying Motivated
 
The state constitution provides that an elected official may be recalled one year after taking office – which meant that fired-up Wisconsinites had to wait until at least November to start collecting signatures. But Wisconsinites remained motivated and engaged during those intervening months as almost everything in the state became hyper-politicized.
 
The campaign for state Supreme Court, originally expected to be a sleepy affair with incumbent Justice David Prosser almost guaranteed to win, turned into a referendum on Governor Walker, with millions of out-of-state dollars poured into the state and record turnout on election day. Kloppenburg was originally announced the winner with 200 votes until Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus, a Republican activist in the state’s most conservative county, announced she had failed to account for 14,000 votes, giving Justice Prosser a 7,500-vote lead that was upheld in the recount.
 
As the Supreme Court race heated up, the Dane County district attorney filed suit alleging that Walker’s collective bargaining bill was passed in violation of the state’s open meetings law, which requires that public notice of meetings be posted 24 hours in advance. Dane County judge Maryann Sumi temporarily blocked implementation of the bill in March (which the Wisconsin GOP tried to ignore), and made her order permanent in May. The prolonged court battle compelled a wide array of Wisconsinites to scrutinize the process of how bills are passed, rather than just the content, and made residents acutely aware of previously obscure provisions in their state constitution. 
 
Sumi’s decision was overturned in a contentious ruling by a divided Wisconsin Supreme Court. The behind-the-scenes debate between the justices about whether to take the case and how to rule became so heated that at one point, Justice Prosser placed his hands around the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. The ensuing controversy again thrust Prosser into the spotlight, giving Wisconsin residents another controversy connected to Walker’s union-busting. 
 
Summer saw recall elections for eight legislators who had been in office for over one year and were eligible for recall; the elections narrowed Republican control of the Senate to just one vote, making moderate Republican Senator Dale Schultz (who voted against the collective bargaining bill) a pivotal player. In coming months, Schultz’s opposition would essentially kill a deregulatory environmental bill crafted exclusively for an out-of-state mining company. Walker and GOP leadership had prioritized the bill and Schultz managed to hand them a rare defeat.
 
ALEC and Koch in Wisconsin
 
Also in summer, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) published the Web site ALECexposed.org, releasing over 800 previously secret “model bills” from the American Legislative Exchange Council and documenting known ALEC member corporations and legislators. ALEC, described as a “corporate bill mill,” allows corporations like Koch Industries and ideological interest groups like the National Rifle Association to hand state legislators changes to the laws that benefit their bottom line and further the right-wing agenda. ALEC “model bills” promote privatization of education and Medicare, environmental deregulation, “tort reform,” union-busting, and more.
 
Many first heard of ALEC during the height of the Wisconsin protests when University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon, a self-described political moderate, published a blog post raising questions about ALEC's role in Walker’s reactionary anti-union bill. His posting prompted the Wisconsin Republican Party to submit an open records request for Cronon’s emails, an effort widely perceived as an effort to harass and silence the professor.
 
With the publication of ALECexposed.org, the out-of-state corporate and ideological influence on elected officials in Wisconsin and elsewhere became clear. Walker was an ALEC member when he was a state legislator, and he appointed other ALEC members to key administrative posts. The leaders of both the Senate and the Assembly were active ALEC members. Multiple ALEC bills were spotted in Wisconsin legislation. In addition to Walker’s attack on public sector unions, everything from voter ID and anti-consumer bills and narrow tax breaks for tobacco companies to concealed carry and “Castle Doctrine” laws, telecommunications deregulation and more, were discovered to have ALEC roots. 
 
ALEC is also closely tied to the Koch agenda, particularly the family’s anti-union zeal. Starting in November, as recall proponents started gathering signatures, the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) started running ads supporting Walker and his “reforms.” The ads started again in January with a $700,000 TV ad buy, plus an unknown amount on Internet banner ads. Sources say AFP has spent $3 million in the state on its “It’s Working!” campaign. 
 
Last month, the real David Koch  told a Florida newspaper that “we’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.” 
 
Koch also sees the recall election as a focal point in a national showdown over union rights. 
 
“What Scott Walker is doing with the public unions in Wisconsin is critically important. He’s an impressive guy and he’s very courageous,” Koch said. “If the unions win the recall, there will be no stopping union power.”

Brendan Fischer is a law fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy, publisher of PR Watch.