Wisconsin's governor and the legislators who have led the charge to eliminate collective bargaining for public workers have had a consistent message: they are representing everyday people against the overwhelming and unjust might of the unions. It's a classic David v. Goliath narrative, and one that we progressives have seen time and again.
What's amazing about what's playing out here is that Wisconsin voters aren't buying it.
Instead, that David v. Goliath narrative has been flipped on its head.
Rather than quietly accept an assault on the labor movement, people have responded with a force and power no one ever expected.
Community members rallied to attend the first scheduled public hearing on the bill which commenced Tuesday, February 14. The bill passed the Joint Finance Committee at 3 am, Wednesday, February 15, after hearing 17 hours of testimony. Responding to public outrage at the limited opportunities for public comment, Democratic committee members continued to take testimony for over two more weeks.
What transpired as the hearing wound down is - or should now be - the stuff of legend. The entire Senate Democratic Caucus left the state to deny the 3/5 quorum required for budget-related items. Governor Walker has sent the state patrol to require them to return to the capitol so the Senate can convene. He has tried to limit their access to paychecks and staff, and backed a resolution that authorizes the use of force to return them to Madison.
The state capitol has since been overwhelmed by a constant presence - and sometimes a deluge - of protests. Protestors have occupied the capitol building continuously now for over two weeks. Just a few days ago, after the Walker administration engaged in a series of illegal actions to limit the public's access to the capitol building, a judge ruled that the protestors would indeed have to leave the building at night. Thursday night, protestors slept outside the building in 20 degree weather.
In the first few days of this episode, 20,000 and then 30,000 protestors descended on Madison to oppose the budget repair bill. As exhilarating as these events were, none of us anticipated crowds that have attended subsequent rallies. When the tea party called for a pro-Walker rally on a Saturday, City and police officials estimated tea partiers were outnumbered by as much as 35 to 1. A week later, officials estimated over 100,000 people turned out for a Saturday rally opposing this power grab.
It turns out, Wisconsin residents identify with a different interpretation of the David vs. Goliath narrative. Teachers, police and firefighters are arrayed against the billionaire Koch brothers, who made major contributions to Walker and the Republican legislative caucus and who have played key and comedic roles in our state drama over the past few weeks.
And the Republican caucus is doing a good job of playing the villainous Goliath. The Republicans in our state legislature have continued to pull dirty tricks and violate parliamentary procedure to try to push the bill through. In the first few days of debate, Assembly representatives were summoned to reconvene at 5 pm, but the Republican leadership called a vote on the union-busting measure at 4:57, when no members of the Democratic caucus were even in the room. This travesty of the public process played out in full view of members of the general public and media who were assembled in the meeting room. A week later, after 61 hours of debate and consideration of well over 100 amendments, republicans forced a vote on the bill but kept the vote open for mere seconds. Several democratic assembly representatives were unable to cast a vote during this brief interval. The bill passed to a chorus of assembly members chanting, "Shame." Despite its passage, four republicans voted against the bill.
Clearly, none of the leaders of this effort anticipated that their message would be subverted so completely. It's worth noting. And worth figuring out how we continue to push a message that clarifies the power imbalance we are fighting.