Democrats managed to defeat two of the six Wisconsin senators who were challenged in a recall election on Tuesday. Millions of dollars poured into the state from national labor groups in an attempt to remove republican senators who backed Republican Governor Scott Walker in his efforts in March to bust the powerful government workers union.
Exactly what happened? More specifically, what could happen in other states governed by a GOP majority?
The events that folded in Wisconsin in March surrounding the union debate widened the chasm between union and anti-union advocates. The series of events reads like a script from an Oliver Stone film; missing state senators, clandestine contributions from elusive billionaires, a pompous state Governor, working class protesters, secret internet hackers-- the cast is full of colorful characters, but all very real.
The debate had been brewing since Wisconsin began to reel from the effects of the current recession - leaving the state with a $137 million budget deficit. Many, if not most, states are in the same financial predicament as Wisconsin, but none had been willing to take a stand as large and as risky as Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker, in trying to balance his state's budget.
At the core of Governor Walker's strategy to balance the budget was his decision to eliminate collective bargaining for government workers. Walker wanted most government workers (police and fire departments are exempt) to pay more for their pensions and healthcare. For union pensions, currently the union members pay nothing, while tax payers pay $150 million per year. Governor Walker is demanding that they pay half the cost of their own pensions equaling 5.8% of their pay. Also, Walker is demanding that the union workers pay 12.6% of their health care costs, up from 6% they are paying today. Governor Walker wants to strictly limit the government workers union to be held to strictly limit their bargaining rights to wages only. Simply put, all public workers, which include teachers and most government workers, would lose the inability to negotiate issues such as work conditions, vacation time or grievance processes.
In an effort to thwart the passage of the governor's bill through Wisconsin's state legislature, the state's 14 Democrat senators fled the state. Even with a Republican majority in the state's Senate, the state legislature requires a quorum, or a minimum of 2/3 be present in matters dealing with the state's budget. By avoiding a vote, the Democrat senators were hoping to kill the collective bargaining bill. Walker sent Wisconsin state troopers throughout the state to search for the missing senators.
Faced with the news of such drastic changes, an estimated 40,000 protesters flooded the Wisconsin Capitol. People from all over the country flooded into Wisconsin to either show their solidarity behind the protesters, or flocked to show their support of the Republican Governor. At issue is whether Walker wanted to simply bust the powerful public-sector unions.
Silently on the sidelines of the debate sat billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Koch Industries, an energy and consumer conglomerate, based in Wichita Kansas was one of the largest contributors to the campaign of Scott Walker. Among many subsidiaries of Koch Industries is Americans for Prosperity, who was among the smaller group of counter protesters in Wisconsin. Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity told a group in Wisconsin, "We are going to bring fiscal sanity back to this great nation."
A spokesperson for Koch Industries denied any involvement of union busting, stating that Koch Industries has no direct stake in the union debate with the company having only about 3,000 employees in Wisconsin.
Political pundits and union activist speculated that the Koch brothers were trying to spark a debate promoting anti-union bias to other states, eventually busting unions nationwide that could save companies millions.
Hanging in the shadows, watching all the drama unfold is a group of liberal internet hackers who call themselves "Anonymous." The Anonymous group considered the events un-democratic and decided to take action by hacking Into the Koch Industries' websites. "Anonymous cannot ignore the plight of the citizen-workers of Wisconsin, or the opportunity to fight for the people in America's broken political system," says the press release given by the elusive group. "For these reasons, we feel that the Koch brothers threaten the United States democratic system and, by extension, all freedom-loving individuals everywhere."
The release went on to say that the role in the "grassroots" Tea Party movement are a means to "sway voters" using "falsehoods" and "starting today we are fighting back." The Koch Industry website was only down for a short time, but the Americans for Prosperity website was down for several days.
The thirteen missing senators blocked a vote on the senate floor, Governor Walker cleverly removed all budget and fiscal aspects from the collective bargaining bill thus allowing the remaining nineteen Republican senators to vote on a "non-budgetary" bill that requires no quorum. The senators were hastily called into session to vote on the bill which passed 18-1. Governor Walker signed the bill on March 11, 2011.
On March 18, Wisconsin Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi issued a temporary restraining order preventing the bill from being published and delaying the law from going into effect. Judge Sumi issued the order after the Dane County District attorney filed a lawsuit arguing that the Republicans violated Wisconsin's open meeting laws by failing to give 24 hour notice of a meeting. The Republicans argued that the open-meeting law 24 hour requirement did not apply in this case.
The collective bargaining debate in Wisconsin may be the catalyst that sparks Republican Governors across America to introduce the same or similar anti-collective bargaining bills to their legislatures. Republicans are more open about their views towards villainous "Big Government." One by one each state with a Republican held majority could potentially topple collective bargaining for state workers. Republican leadership is moving towards government being run more efficiently like a business whereby the rights of the many are dictated by a select few. Where will this leave teachers and government workers without the ability to bargain for better pay, working conditions and benefits? Only time and the will of the people will say.
The state of Wisconsin was the first state to allow government workers to unionize in 1959. How ironic.