The state of Wisconsin has become “ground zero” —in the words of the protest movement there— in the struggle to defend over a century of progress in workers’ rights. On Saturday, over 60,000 people were estimated to have rallied at the state capitol, and Sunday’s crowds were said to be the biggest to date. More protests are called for this week, and Gov. Walker’s opponents are now organizing a recall campaign against legislators who support his proposed legislation.
The labor unions who have offered major concessions in order to reach a negotiated compromise on the proposed reforms are standing astride the broad political center. They are showing that citizenship is rooted in the willingness to listen to one’s opponents and to find shared solutions. The governor’s refusal to do the same shows his aim to rule by executive fiat. He is setting himself up as a notorious adversary of the democratic process.
The people of Wisconsin cannot benefit from a process as one-sided as any we have seen in recent years in American politics, in which the governor has threatened to call out the National Guard to silence his critics and well more than half the population is opposed to the legislation. Democratic lawmakers are boycotting the bill from an undisclosed location out of state, and Madison is at a stand-still. A bipartisan alternative could change the dynamic and pressure the governor to compromise.
There are mounting questions about the legitimacy of a process in which a governor appears to have betrayed pledges to at least three unions who backed his election campaign, is using two brothers who run the two houses of the legislature and their father, at the helm of the state police, to force an agenda through, and is diametrically opposed to the view of most of the people he represents.
Protest leaders should begin working with the Wisconsin 14, the Democratic state senators who have fled the state to deprive Walker of a quorum needed to hold a vote, and with sympathetic independents and Republicans. They should name an organizer, vote-counter or “draft team leader”, possibly retired Sen. Russ Feingold, to negotiate with Republicans willing to join a bipartisan compromise caucus.
They should then announce their intention to propose a bill that meets fiscal requirements but protects all collective bargaining rights, spelling out the constitutional clauses and principles that require them to do so. There is a vast American center, spanning from modern libertarians and populist conservatives to educated liberals and progressive populists, across which it is possible to find agreement on the idea that the exercise of raw power should not dictate working conditions.
When all the unions with a direct stake in this legislative battle have agreed to all the fiscal concessions the governor is calling for, it can be said the negotiation clock has started ticking. Unwillingness to accept those concessions shows three things above all, regarding Gov. Walker: 1) a lack of commitment to the deficit issue; 2) an agenda that involves busting the unions; 3) a political weakness playing out as intransigence.
After a certain amount of time has elapsed, it will be clear to everyone that Gov. Walker is not worried about public spending or the budget deficit, but is using this legislation to attempt to crush political dissent. If this is the case, there will be a revolt against him in public sentiment, across that wide political center, and his bargaining position will weaken still further.
Both sides will benefit from finding compromise in this situation. The unions, which have already made historic concessions last year, to save the state money and to protect tens of thousands of jobs, would be once again making major sacrifice, at the personal level, in solidarity with the people of Wisconsin, and they would retain their collective bargaining rights. Gov. Walker would be able to say he is serious about budget deficits and take pride in winning major concessions from an obviously determined opposition.
And the state of Wisconsin would show itself as an example of civil debate, negotiated political compromise and participatory democracy. People across the United States and abroad have been inspired by the image of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens occupying the main legislative building in their state, and the lack of confrontation or scuffles has shown Madison as a bastion of democracy and a place where people’s rights are given priority.
Gov. Walker can capitalize on this historic moment for his state, and show he understands the meaning of the moment, or he can persist in the flawed logic of the lonely authoritarian, who does not want or need the people’s consent to govern. Independents don’t take kindly to political leaders who fancy themselves petty Napoleons, especially when fundamental rights are imperiled in the process.
The compromise legislation could look something like the following:
- No public sector walkouts or work stoppages for one year
- Fiscal concessions agreeable to all parties
- Full protection of collective bargaining rights for public servants
- Rolling back of governor’s authority over National Guard, except in case of natural disaster
- Full disclosure of meetings among leaders who drafted the current proposal
- Full disclosure of Gov. Walker’s official governor’s office phone records since taking office
- Guaranteed inflation adjustment for public sector wages for period of major concessions
This is a start, a basic framework that deals with the fundamental questions involved in the current dispute. Gov. Walker may wish to see some of the provisions monitoring his handling of the situation removed, and unions may wish to call for an equal labor-rights protection, in the form of an equal treatment amendment to Wisconsin constitution.
There is a basic nobility of purpose in participatory democracy, and the citizens rallying to kill the bill can show their commitment to this process, and put added pressure on the governor to be reasonable in his response, by putting forward a credible alternative to his proposal, a clear compromise that better takes in the views of all Wisconsinites and ensures that momentary fiscal pressures don’t cause the state to betray its people’s core principles, or undermine the quality of democratic process.