The Corner

In Wisconsin, Progressives Against Progress

In January of this year, public-sector unions in Wisconsin began the process of “interviewing” candidates to run in a recall election against Republican governor Scott Walker. It was Walker who one year ago introduced a bill to virtually eliminate collective bargaining for public labor unions, and who required state- and local-government employees to begin paying into their own pension accounts. For this, Walker faces an almost certain recall election this summer.

During this interview process, unions asked potential candidates an important question: Would you commit to vetoing the entire budget if it didn’t fully restore collective bargaining? Democratic state senator Tim Cullen, one of the senators who fled the state in order to block a vote on Walker’s bill, said he couldn’t make that commitment. He quickly dropped out of the race, citing the unions’ “respectful indifference” to his candidacy.

Yet the unions found one candidate who would not only take the bait, but swallow the hook. Former Dane County executive and two-time statewide-election loser Kathleen Falk agreed to veto any budget bill that didn’t reverse Walker’s new law. On Wednesday afternoon, the state’s largest teachers’ union announced they would be endorsing Falk, granting her access to millions of dollars in public-sector-union campaign aid. (Today, the teachers’ union admitted they did not poll their members in making their endorsement; they clearly just found someone to give them the answer they needed.)

Falk’s neon-bright message to the voters? Public-sector collective bargaining is the single most important issue the state faces, not the 150,000 jobs lost in the past two years, not the giant hole in the Medicaid budget, and certainly not the deficit in the transportation fund. (Ironically, unions have excoriated Walker for “cutting” funds to schools and for health care, but, given her pledge, Falk would have to veto any budget that restores those “cuts” if it didn’t include full restoration of bargaining.)

So the teachers’ union has essentially presented the public with Kathleen Falk’s deed; they own her.

Of course, Falk’s “Progressive” supporters are wont to forget the reason progressivism took root in Wisconsin. Progressive progenitor “Fighting Bob” La Follette railed against special interests deciding who earned a party’s nomination, and spent his early career fighting for democratic primaries to root out wholesale corruption. My piece in City Journal today picks it up there:

To this day, Wisconsin liberals genuflect at the mention of “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the state’s most revered political figure, who served as governor and U.S. senator and won 17 percent of the vote as a Progressive Party candidate for president in 1924. La Follette earned his place in state lore the hard way, fighting an uphill battle against what he called “the menace of the political machine.” Back then, that meant party bosses who anointed candidates in smoke-filled rooms, blunting the will of the people. La Follette believed that to end “political robbery,” the nominating process had to “go back to the first principles of democracy; go back to the people.” After several failed tries, La Follette finally beat the machine and became Wisconsin’s governor in 1900.

If he were alive today, though, La Follette might see a new kind of menace: public-sector unions. In 1898, public-sector unionization was only a gleam in progressives’ eyes; it wouldn’t become a reality in Wisconsin until 1959. But by 2012, unions have grown into the dominant political force in the state. And they’ve used their power to organize a special election to recall Governor Scott Walker, who provoked their ire last year when he rolled back collective bargaining power. . . .

“Government by the political machine is without exception the rule of the minority,” La Follette said in 1897. Today’s progressives prefer selective remembrance of La Follette’s legacy: as long as it’s for the right cause, minority rule is fine by them.

Of course, political observers have always recognized the implied quid pro quo between public unions and Democrats. But it is rare that it would become so nakedly explicit.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and a co-author of the Campaign Manager Survey.


The Latest