In Wis., Focus Shifts From Union Law To Governor

Nov 2, 2011
Originally published on November 2, 2011 8:38 am

A Wisconsin law on union bargaining rights signed by Gov. Scott Walker shows no signs of disappearing.

In February and March, there was a shocking, sometimes strange sight at the Wisconsin capitol: By day, protesters marched shoulder-to-shoulder. By night, they lived in the capitol, sleeping on the building's marble floors.

It began after Walker, a Republican, broke 50 years of Wisconsin precedent, announcing he would not bargain with public employee unions. He said the state was broke and he had nothing to negotiate with. The rest is the stuff of political folklore.

Fourteen Democratic state senators soon high-tailed it out of Wisconsin to prevent a vote on Walker's collective-bargaining plan. Some, like Milwaukee's Chris Larson, talked of staying away indefinitely.

"I mean it could be in the matter of hours, it could be a couple days, it could be a couple weeks," Larson said at the time.

The weeks-long standoff ended suddenly when Republicans found a procedural way out. That vote so angered protesters that they poured in by the thousands through the Capitol's doors and windows.

Walker's critics vowed revenge, much like in Ohio when Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled legislature passed an even more stringent law.

Suffice it to say, the two states have different options for venting public anger. Ohio does not have recall elections for state officials, but Wisconsin does, and both parties decided to use that option.

In August, there were an unprecedented nine state Senate recall elections. Democrats picked up two state Senate seats, but fell one short of winning the Senate majority. That left the law still standing and Republicans celebrating. Democrats were effectively powerless to change anything about the law.

This leads to another big difference between Ohio and Wisconsin. While Ohio's law remains on hold, Wisconsin's law has been in effect for months now.

Walker and his allies say the law is working, helping school districts save money and avoid layoffs and will help homeowners with lower property taxes.

Labor unions are now focusing on recalling Walker. Hundreds attended a recent rally and recall training session in Madison. Speakers included possible Democratic candidates for governor, like Jon Erpenbach, one of the 14 senators who left Wisconsin.

"What Gov. Walker has done to the state that we all love has divided us beyond belief," Erpehnbach says.

Walker's opponents will start circulating recall petitions Nov. 15, and will have 60 days to gather at least 540,000 signatures to even force an election. But even if they succeed, and Walker loses such an election, he'd be in office until at least next spring or summer. By then, the bargaining law would have been in effect for a year.

And in a twist, Democrats are also considering another round of state Senate recalls — one more sign that in Wisconsin this messy fight keeps getting even messier.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Earlier this year, long before the Occupy Wall Street movement, protesters by the thousands were occupying the Wisconsin state capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MONTAGNE: They were responding to a plan by Republican Governor Scott Walker to severely restrict public employee unions' bargaining rights.

INSKEEP: It's a move that was soon repeated in Ohio by Republican Governor John Kasich. And we're going to catch up with both states now. The effort in both states has been divisive and sparked bold responses by unions and their allies.

MONTAGNE: We'll hear from Ohio in a few moments. But first, Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports on the challenges in that state.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: It was truly a shocking, sometimes strange sight at the Wisconsin capitol in February and March. By day, protesters marched shoulder to shoulder. By night they lived in the capitol, sleeping on the building's marble floors. It began after Republican Governor Scott Walker broke 50 years of Wisconsin precedent, announcing that he would not bargain with public employee unions.

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: 'Cause I don't have anything to negotiate. Good faith negotiation requires a give and take. We are broke in this state...

JOHNSON: The rest is the stuff of political folklore. Fourteen Democratic state senators soon high-tailed it out of Wisconsin to prevent a vote on Walker's collective bargaining plan. Some, like Milwaukee's Chris Larson, talked of staying away indefinitely.

STATE SENATOR CHRIS LARSON: I mean it could be in the matter of hours, it could be a couple days, it could be a couple weeks.

JOHNSON: The weeks-long standoff ended suddenly when Republicans found a procedural way out. That vote so angered protesters that they poured in by the thousands through the capitol's doors and windows.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

JOHNSON: Governor Scott Walker's critics vowed revenge - much like in Ohio when Governor Kasich and the Republican-controlled legislature passed an even more stringent law there. More on that though in a few minutes. Suffice it to say, the two states have very different options for venting public anger. Ohio does not have recall elections for state officials. But Wisconsin does. And in Wisconsin, both parties used that option. This summer, there were an unprecedented nine state senate recall elections. Democrats picked up two state senate seats. But they fell one short of winning the Senate majority. That left the law still standing and Republicans like Senator Luther Olsen celebrating.

SENATOR LUTHER OLSEN: Well, we did it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

JOHNSON: And it left Democrats effectively powerless to change anything about the law. Which leads to another big difference between Ohio and Wisconsin. While Ohio's law remains on hold, Wisconsin's law has been in effect for months now. Walker and his allies say the law is working, helping school districts save money and avoid layoffs and helping homeowners with lower property taxes. Labor's focus now is on recalling Governor Walker. Hundreds attended a recent rally and recall training session in Madison. Speakers included possible Democratic candidates for governor, like Jon Erpenbach, one of the 14 senators who left Wisconsin.

STATE SENATOR JON ERPENBACH: What Governor Walker has done to the state that we all love has divided us beyond belief.

JOHNSON: Walker's opponents will start circulating recall petitions on November 15th. They'll have 60 days to gather at least 540,000 signatures to even force an election. But even if they succeed, and Walker loses such an election, he'd be in office until at least next spring or summer. By then the bargaining law would have been in effect for a year. And here's a twist. Democrats are also considering another round of state senate recalls - one more sign that in Wisconsin this messy fight keeps getting even messier. For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.