The two sides in the Wisconsin stalemate had opposing views of the dispute. Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in the state Legislature said it was all about making up for a $137 million budget shortfall. Democrats and their allies in organized labor said it was all about busting the public-employee unions.
That debate was settled this week in a quick vote lasting less than half an hour. The answer: It was indeed all about busting the unions — or at least severely emasculating them.
Fourteen Democratic state senators blocked consideration of Walker's "budget repair" bill for three weeks by hiding out in neighboring Illinois, leaving the Senate short of a necessary quorum to take up budgetary matters.
Finally, the Republicans ran out of patience and stripped the budget issues out of the bill, leaving only the labor provisions, which, since they involved no outlays of money, were subject to a smaller quorum.
Needing only Republican votes, the Senate quickly voted to take away virtually all the collective bargaining rights of their public-employee unions. The state budget, supposedly the point of this whole exercise from the GOP standpoint, remains unaddressed.
The 1935 Wagner Act guaranteed private-sector workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively over wages, hours and working conditions.
Under the 2011 Walker Act, most Wisconsin state employees may only bargain over wage increases no higher than the rate of inflation, currently about 1.6 percent. Anything greater must be approved by a public referendum, a serious hurdle.
And the law has two gratuitous provisions intended to make it harder for labor leaders to hold their unions together: The members must vote annually on whether to keep their union, and the state will no longer deduct union dues from paychecks; the unions will have to collect the dues themselves.
There is another telling sign that this fight was not all about the budget. Shamelessly and cynically, Walker and other Republicans exempted the heavily unionized police and firefighters from the bill. If budget repair is truly the goal, the uniformed services are being asked to contribute very little to that repair — little or nothing in the way of pension contributions compared to 5.8 percent for other public employees and only 6 percent for health care rather than the 12 percent for everybody else.
It's not as if Walker owed the police and fire unions. Only four of their local unions in the state endorsed him. From news accounts in the state and statements out of the governor's office, it's clear why he didn't take them on the way he did, say, the teachers and the janitors. He was afraid of them.
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The police and firefighters are popular with the public and politically powerful. And Walker admitted he didn't want to run the risk of public-safety work stoppages.
The governor and other Republicans have their hard-fought victory, won at the expense of what must have been considerable personal discomfort. But the battle has left a residue of bitterness that will linger, after the demands for recall elections subside, in demoralized workplaces. It could be a long time before the people of Wisconsin know whether this was worth the fight.