Manitowoc, Wis.— Last year, thousands of people passed by the front doors of Madison’s Bartell community theater on their way to the Wisconsin capitol to protest the state’s government-employee-compensation reforms. More recently, the theater lowered the curtain on its latest sold-out hit — a play written in the “Fakespearean” style entitled “The Lamentable Tragedie of Scott Walker, Govnour of Wisconsin.”
The denouement of the play (which was originally titled “F*** You, Scott Walker”) occurs when Walker escapes the mob by climbing to the top of the capitol, only to be thrown to his death while the fool yells “Sic semper tyrannis!” The play’s author, Doug Reed, claims he is a “committed pacifist,” but says he had to stay true to the form; as he notes, “the title characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies never survive to the end of the play.”
On this late Monday morning in April, the real Governor Scott Walker, very much alive, is standing in front of a bright orange, $250,000 snowplow belonging to the Manitowoc County Highway Department. Walker is beginning a tour of the state in which he will tout the $1 billion that Wisconsin governments have saved as a result of his hard-won reforms. The governor, 44, is fighting for his political life, as he faces a June 5 recall election instigated by public-employee unions. The race is widely regarded as the second most important American election in 2012.
Yet you couldn’t grasp the magnitude of the election by observing the size of the crowd in the spacious garage that houses the snowplow. As Walker speaks at a small brown podium, there are about 14 people on hand, four of whom appear to be under the age of ten. Walker’s campaign team has to keep public attendance at press events extremely limited; in every corner of the state, protesters lurk, waiting for their chance to scream an obscenity, on camera, at the governor they have labeled a “dictator.”
Prior to Walker’s reforms, state and local-government employees paid nothing or very little toward their pensions and paid only slightly more than 6 percent of their health-care premiums. According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, the average Wisconsin government employee earned $71,000 in total compensation in 2011. That same year, average total compensation for employees of the state’s largest school district, Milwaukee Public Schools, reached $101,091. Walker helped close the state’s $3.6 billion deficit by requiring public employees to pay 5 percent of their salaries toward their pensions. He also required state employees to pay 12.6 percent of their health-insurance premiums — less than half the average both in the private sector and for federal-government employees.
But the most controversial part of Walker’s plan was its sharp curtailing of union power, and in particular collective bargaining. Prior to Walker’s law, all government workers were required to join unions and pay dues, and unions were able to negotiate all conditions of employment — wages, benefits, work rules. Walker made union membership optional, eliminated the automatic deduction of union dues, and ended collective bargaining for everything but wages. Today, the unions are still able to negotiate wages for all employees (including non-members), but governments may decide for themselves how to handle work rules and other forms of compensation, and employees may decide for themselves whether to give money to the unions.
President Barack Obama immediately jumped into the fray, calling Walker’s plan an “assault” on unions. Yet not only do the overwhelming majority of federal employees not bargain collectively, but Obama himself unilaterally imposed a pay freeze on civilian federal workers just months before he accused Walker of stripping workers of their collective-bargaining “rights.”
These reforms propelled the state into chaos for a good portion of 2011. The capitol was occupied by, to steal a term from Mark Twain, the “great hive” of public employees, who banged drums, blew vuvuzelas, and camped on the marble floors. Fourteen Democratic senators fled the state for weeks to block a vote on the bill; Walker was the victim of a prank call from someone pretending to be David Koch, one of the billionaire Koch brothers. (Walker’s willingness to take the call provided the Left with a prominent talking point: that Walker was beholden to corporate America and that the Koch brothers were secretly writing Walker’s legislation.) A government-employee union issued a press release comparing Walker to “Adolph Hilter.” No one batted an eye when a camel was seen walking around the frozen capitol square.
Throughout the mayhem, Walker stood firm.
Walker is often compared to Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan — the two are young stars of the national Republican party, and Walker just happened to grow up “right down the road” from Ryan. Yet their styles are very different.
Ryan unceasingly warns of a coming fiscal apocalypse, making his listeners want to grab a flashlight and canned goods and ride out the federal-debt Armageddon in their basements. Walker, on the other hand, speaks with subdued precision. He has spent a full year explaining how his reforms are working for Wisconsin; for instance, property taxes have declined for the first time in twelve years. School districts whose contracts previously forced them to buy expensive health insurance from the unions’ own health-care company are saving tens of millions of dollars, because Walker’s law opened up their contracts to competitive bidding. Large-scale teacher layoffs are occurring only in the few districts that chose not to implement Walker’s plan requiring increased health-care and pension contributions.
Wisconsin’s history created a substantial headwind against Walker. It is the state that birthed “Fighting Bob” La Follette and the Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century. It is where the union AFSCME was first incorporated, and in 1959 it became the first state to allow collective bargaining by government employees. Madison’s infamous Vietnam-era protests included the bombing of a University of Wisconsin building, an attack that killed a young researcher.
More recently, on the other hand, Wisconsin has been a laboratory for conservative reforms; Milwaukee boasts the nation’s oldest private-school voucher program, and in the early 1990s Republican governor Tommy Thompson implemented a welfare-reform program that became the model for national welfare reform a few years later. But when Walker was elected, it had been twelve years since the state had elected a Republican governor and 26 years since it voted for a Republican presidential candidate. (George W. Bush lost by a scant 0.22 percentage points in 2000 and 0.48 percentage points in 2004.)