Madison, Wis. — Snow is falling here. The coffee shops have closed. The college bars are shuttered. A lone police car inches along State Street, icy slush glazing its wheels. The heavyset patrolman eyes me warily: Trench coats and suit jackets are rare in these parts. We nod, and he continues on, spotlights floating through the Lake Monona fog.
Up on the knoll, a white dome gleams. In the midnight quiet, I trudge toward it, past a graybeard professor and hulking Teamsters. Near the door, a skinny girl decked out in a ruby University of Wisconsin sweatshirt smokes a cigarette. Her friend is hooked into her iPhone, texting her classmates, urging them to visit. I move inside, out of the cold. The marble hall is dark, dimly lit by sunflower-yellow lamps. There is a faint hum.
Ambling down the corridor, sidestepping grungy pillows, acoustic guitars, and empty pizza boxes, I near the center of this stately building. The humid, sweat-scented air flares the nostrils. The hum becomes a roar: Thousands are packed into all four wings of the building. They wear bright purple SEIU T-shirts, lime green AFSCME ponchos, and fraying flannel. Gently elbowing my way through the dreadlocks and past the stacked hand drums, I find myself under the rotunda, at the center of a bizarre, union-sponsored slumber party.
A couple of feet away, a high-school teacher grabs a bullhorn and, much as the shaman calls the rain, begins to lead those assembled in a sing-along of “Union Maid,” a Woody Guthrie ditty. The scene is like a Grateful Dead concert without the plugged-in licks, a raucous temple for aging activists and impressionable youth. “Welcome to paradise,” chuckles a capitol guard.
For much of February, the Wisconsin state capitol was occupied by labor leaders, undergraduates, and a potpourri of lefty radicals. They were loud and they were angry. On cardboard signs and sprawling banners, they railed against Gov. Scott Walker, the Badger State’s rookie executive, who earlier in the month had proposed a budget-repair bill that would break the grip of public-sector unions in a state that has long been dominated by them.
Walker, a 43-year-old Republican, was skewered by liberal pundits. Protesters compared him to Adolf Hitler, Hosni Mubarak, and Darth Vader. But he ignored their cries and made a compelling, unflinching argument for fiscal prudence. For conservatives, it was an awe-inspiring sight. George Will observed that Walker’s steely determination called up the ghosts of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who so famously tangled with union bosses three decades ago.
But Walker’s fight was more than an echo of glory past: It emerged, with speed and fervor, as the definitive state-level budget battle in the Age of Obama. Since Walker rolled out his plan, a half-dozen states have seen similar union-fueled uprisings as they grapple with budget gaps and benefit-addicted government workers. Walker, an unassuming man who speaks with a nasal midwestern accent, is suddenly a nationally recognized fiscal hawk and, to many Republicans, a hero.
On Friday, February 11, days after the Green Bay Packers topped the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, Madison was a picture of placidity. Walker, still settling in, had few enemies. He did not need a Google alert for his name. Few national reporters were paying attention to him. Wisconsin’s GOP stars — Rep. Paul Ryan, a leader in the U.S. House, and Sen. Ron Johnson, a Tea Party–inspired freshman — owned the spotlight.
One press conference changed that. Facing an immediate budget deficit of $137 million and a $3.6 billion shortfall over the next two years, Walker took to the podium behind his first-floor office at the capitol and told a handful of scribes that bold action was needed. “The path to long-term financial solvency for our state requires shared sacrifices from everyone,” he said. Walker’s plan asked state workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their pensions and to pay 12.6 percent of their health-insurance premiums. Most controversially, he aimed to limit collective bargaining for nearly all state employees by restricting future government-union haggles to wages and excluding pensions and other benefits. He unveiled this all softly, with none of the frank combativeness of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who gained headlines last year for his tussle with the public sector. Walker’s aides say their boss saw the fiscal mess as spectacle enough — no need to wag a finger.
But he might as well have thrown acid at the Left. The eye-rubbing reactions poured in. Here was a greenhorn Republican governor taking on the unions in a state that in 1959 became the first to grant public workers collective-bargaining rights. A GOP nobody was going to throttle the political culture in a capitol where a statue of “Fighting” Bob La Follette, a progressive legend, stands vigil between the legislative chambers. For Democrats and their allies, it was almost unbelievable. Republican governors had come and gone, to be sure, but none had so fiercely and so quickly attempted to tear at the fabric of the state government’s cozy, union-friendly culture.
Jill Bakken, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers in Wisconsin, spoke for many with her initial response. “State employees are shocked and bewildered about how 50 years of labor peace can be unraveled by a governor who has been in office for six weeks,” she said. Fellow Democrats, sensing trouble, began to mobilize. Organizing outfits such as MoveOn.org stirred online buzz. By Sunday evening, hundreds were gathered outside the state capitol and the governor’s mansion, demanding that Walker back down.
The crowds began to swell on Tuesday and Wednesday, when Madison-area teachers abandoned their classrooms in protest. Although teacher strikes are illegal in Wisconsin, teachers danced around the law and organized “sickouts.” Supportive physicians scribbled phony doctor’s notes for those in need. The Madison epidemic spread from Kenosha to Superior — schools were shut down across the state, and teachers reinforced their ranks at the capitol. “We teach the children!” one legion cried as they marched below Walker’s office. “We are the mighty teachers!” bellowed another.
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, anti-Walker forces hit the 10,000 mark by Tuesday afternoon and 20,000 by Wednesday. Sleeping bags started to appear by committee rooms. Inflatable mattresses popped up near state senate offices. Police officers, themselves members of a union allied with the protesters, abstained from confronting the squatters. There were no metal detectors or other security measures, and the capitol doors remained wide open, day and night. Zero arrests were made.
Walker plowed ahead. He knew that he had the votes to pass his plan, regardless of the kicking and screaming. Republicans hold a 19–14 edge in the state senate and a 57–38–1 majority in the state assembly. But to have a vote, elected representatives have to show up: Specifically, the Wisconsin senate requires the presence of a 20-senator quorum before considering any fiscal measure. Knowing this, the 14 Democratic state senators promptly went on the lam.
By the evening of February 18, the entire Democratic caucus from the upper chamber was in hiding, holed up at hotels in northern Illinois and Chicago. They giggled with bloggers over the phone that, in Dick Cheney style, they were calling from “undisclosed locations.” As the senators evaded state troopers dispatched by the state senate to haul them back to work, busloads of labor supporters began to arrive in Madison. The Left was digging in — and man, did they love it. MSNBC’s Ed Schultz set up shop. Teaching assistants from the University of Wisconsin began to organize a commune of sorts, operating out of a hearing room on the capitol’s third floor. Even President Obama jumped into the mix, calling Walker’s maneuver an “assault on unions.”
A week after Walker’s initial presser, with a circus rollicking outside his office and the national press pouring into Dane County airport, the unions approached and dangled an offer: They would accept Walker’s terms on pensions and health benefits but would not give up collective-bargaining power. “We will not — I repeat, we will not — be denied our rights to collectively bargain,” said Marty Beil, the leader of the state employees’ union. The chants around Capitol Square quickly picked up this spin. Public-school teachers wearing varsity jackets belted out: “It’s not about the money!”
Walker responded coolly to the deal. He later told me that he immediately figured it to be a red herring. He argued that his budget fix was designed to help school districts and municipalities tighten their belts in coming years. Labor wanted to make the kerfuffle about his alleged thirst for “union busting,” but the governor would not bite. If collective bargaining remained, he reasoned, then few local leaders would be able to balance their budgets — not with the unions holding all of the cards.
Astounded that Walker would not buckle, labor brass called in reinforcements. Richard Trumka, the national president of the AFL-CIO, convened a rally Friday evening. Jesse Jackson and others flocked to the scene. On Saturday, approximately 70,000 people showed up at the capitol, circling the building for hours. Firefighters marched hand in hand with teachers, corrections officers raised their fists in front of a nearby Starbucks, students scurried over from UW-Madison’s campus. Out-of-state supporters flooded in.
So did the Tea Party. Thousands of Walker supporters appeared with Gadsden flags and Old Glory, cutting right through the labor masses toward the capitol. They set up a makeshift stage, their pro-Walker posters waving under the clear blue sky. Conservative favorites such as publisher Andrew Breitbart, presidential candidate Herman Cain, and Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher cheered on the crowd and chastised the absent state senators. “Recall them all!” was a common chant. Walker loved it.
The day after the Saturday showdown, the governor and I met in his capitol office. He implored the on-the-run legislators to “come home.” For the first time, I saw a flash of disdain from Walker, whose calm usually reminds me of a placid public-radio newsreader. This battle was dragging on with no conclusion in sight. But Walker would not budge and insisted that he could outlast the Democrats, even if protests swamped the capitol for months.
“They have no endgame,” he said with a hint of exasperation. “They don’t know what they are doing. They got caught up in the hysteria and decided to run, but that’s not how this works. You have got to be in the arena.”
Walker had seen this movie before. From 2002 to 2010, he served as chief executive of Milwaukee County, a blue community of nearly a million. He was elected to the post after county executives had lavished extensive pension perks upon themselves, inspiring an outbreak of flinty fiscal conservatism even in liberal voters — at least for a time. After nearly a decade as a state legislator, during which time he was a popular guest on Wisconsin’s talk-radio circuit and was viewed as a rising Republican star, he found himself managing an out-of-control budget in a major Midwestern city. It was an abrupt change of pace.
From the outset, Walker led as an unapologetic conservative and began to make immediate, deep cuts. Budgets were slashed and public workers laid off. The local unions were apoplectic. Walker soldiered on and never once raised property taxes. The county’s bond rating improved, and its debt was reduced. Walker, a low-key speaker but a pol with solid gut instincts, even donated thousands in salary back to the taxpayers. For a middle-class father of two teenage sons, that was more than a gimmick.
“We were dealing with many of the same fights I’m fighting right now: pension reform and health-care benefits,” Walker recalled. “We were challenging the status quo. We reined in spending, reined in the size of government, and reduced the size of the work force.”
Year after year, he roiled big-government Democrats with his streamlined county budgets. “People would sit in the chambers when I presented my budgets. I’d have whole sections of the gallery filled with AFSCME leaders in green shirts holding up signs that read ‘Negotiate, don’t dictate.’ So I have great credibility when I talk about the need to change collective bargaining. I saw firsthand how the unions thumbed their noses at local elected officials.”
“‘We are not budging’ — that is the unions’ mindset,” Walker sighed as the protesters rumbled beyond his door. “Even if you wanted modest changes in health-care and pension contributions, you could not get it. One year, I even tried a 35-hour workweek for a couple weeks, and they told me to forget it. ‘Go lay people off,’ they said, ‘you’ll be gone soon enough. We may not get our people back, but our benefits won’t be reduced.’ They had no interest in doing anything reasonable with local officials.”
By late February, with Democratic state senators still roosting in Illinois, assembly Republicans hustled to pass the governor’s budget bill. It was a slow, arduous process: Lower-chamber Democrats did not flee, but they did filibuster, via amendments and long-winded floor speeches, for 61 hours straight. On February 24, there were rumors that the Democrats would finally stop the theatrics. But they kept riffing well into the night.
At 1 a.m. on Friday, February 25, Rep. Bill Kramer, the GOP speaker pro tempore, decided he had seen enough. He grabbed his gavel, halted the debate, and called for a vote. It was over in seconds. Walker’s bill passed 51 to 17, with nearly one-third of the sleepy chamber, including 25 Democrats, not voting — some were absent, others confused by the sudden end to the filibuster.
Bedlam ensued. Democratic legislators, clad in orange shirts like their union backers, took to the floor. They raised their arms and pointed their fingers at their GOP colleagues, echoing the chants of those huddled throughout the capitol. There were yelps and groans; some screamed “Shame!” at Republicans, others called the process undemocratic. The shout-fest was akin to the British House of Commons at its absolute worst. But Walker had won a crucial victory in the war to pass his bill. If that meant that the absentee Democratic senators stayed in Illinois and started rooting for the Chicago Bears, never to return home again, he could live with that.
At the end of my conversation with Walker, the throbbing drums of the protesters began to bleed through the granite. Walker shrugged off the noise. “These tens of thousands of protesters have every right to be heard,” he told me. “But there are 5.5 million people in this state, and those taxpayers also have a right to be heard. I, for one, am not going to let the protesters overshadow, or shout out, the interest of the state’s taxpayers. And I believe that they are with us in trying to balance this budget.”
Indeed, Walker sees his brawl with union bosses as an important testing ground for other governors dealing with in-the-red budgets. “I was talking to former governor Tommy Thompson about this the other day,” he said, his hands clasped. “Wisconsin set the table back in the Nineties on welfare reform. We were a leader there, and we were a leader on education reform. Now we are talking about budgetary and fiscal reform. Wisconsin, in many cases, sets the pace.”
And Scott Walker intends to set the pace for Wisconsin.