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 dénouement 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.