What's Happening in Wisconsin Explained
By Andy Kroll / motherjones.com
Feb 28, 2011

If you need to know the basics of what's going on in Wisconsin, read on. If you're already up to speed, you can follow the action on Twitter or jump straight to the latest updates from our reporter on the ground in Madison.

With additional reporting by Nick Baumann and Siddhartha Mahanta

The basics:

For days, demonstrators have been pouring into the streets of Madison, Wisconsin—and the halls of the state's Capitol building—to protest rookie Republican Governor Scott Walker's anti-union proposals. Big national unions, both major political parties, the Tea Party, and Andrew Breitbart are already involved. Democratic state senators have fled the state to prevent the legislature from voting on Walker's proposals. And the protests could soon spread to other states, including Ohio.

Is this like Egypt?

No.

What's actually being proposed?

Walker says his legislation, which would strip most state employees of any meaningful collective bargaining rights, is necessary to close the state's $137 million budget gap. There are a number of problems with that argument, though. The unions are not to blame for the deficit, and stripping unionized workers of their collective bargaining rights won't in and of itself save any money. Walker says he needs to strip the unions of their rights to close the gap. But public safety officers' unions, which have members who are more likely to support Republicans and who also tend to have the highest salaries and benefits, are exempted from the new rules. Meanwhile, a series of tax breaks and other goodies that Walker and the Republican legislature passed just after his inauguration dramatically increased the deficit that Walker now says he's trying to close. And Wisconsin has closed a much larger budget gap in the past without scrapping worker organizing rights.

What's really going on, as Kevin Drum has explained, is pure partisan warfare: Walker is trying to de-fund the unions that form the backbone of the Democratic party. The unions and the Democrats are, of course, fighting back. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein drops some knowledge [emphasis added]:

wisconsin protests

Activists protesting new GOP Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union proposals have occupied the rotunda of the Wisconsin capitol building in Madison for the past week. They say they have no plans to leave unless Walker backs down.

The best way to understand Walker's proposal is as a multi-part attack on the state's labor unions. In part one, their ability to bargain benefits for their members is reduced. In part two, their ability to collect dues, and thus spend money organizing members or lobbying the legislature, is undercut. And in part three, workers have to vote the union back into existence every single year. Put it all together and it looks like this: Wisconsin's unions can't deliver value to their members, they're deprived of the resources to change the rules so they can start delivering value to their members again, and because of that, their members eventually give in to employer pressure and shut the union down in one of the annual certification elections.

You may think Walker's proposal is a good idea or a bad idea. But that's what it does. And it's telling that he's exempting the unions that supported him and is trying to obscure his plan's specifics behind misleading language about what unions can still bargain for and misleading rhetoric about the state's budget.

Walker's proposals do have important fiscal elements: they roughly double health care premiums for many state employees. But the heart of the proposals, and the controversy, are the provisions that will effectively destroy public-sector unions in the Badger State. As Matt Yglesias notes, this won't destroy the Democratic party. But it will force the party to seek funding from sources other than unions, and that usually means the same rich businessmen who are the main financial backers for the Republican party. Speaking of which....

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Who is Scott Walker? 

Walker was elected governor in the GOP landslide of 2010, when Republicans also gained control of the Wisconsin state senate and house of representatives. His political career has been bankrolled by Charles and David Koch, the very rich, very conservative, and very anti-union oil-and-gas magnates. Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation have long taken a very antagonistic view toward public-sector unions. They've used their vast fortunes to fight key Obama initiatives on health care and the environment, while writing fat checks to Republican candidates across the country. Walker's take for the 2010 election: $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC, his second highest intake from any one donor. But that's not all!:

The Koch's PAC also helped Walker via a familiar and much-used political maneuver designed to allow donors to skirt campaign finance limits. The PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent $65,000 on independent expenditures to support Walker. The RGA also spent a whopping $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking Walker's opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker ended up beating Barrett by 5 points. The Koch money, no doubt, helped greatly.

What are the Democrats and the unions doing to respond?

Well, they're protesting, obviously—filling the halls of the Capitol and the streets of Madison with bodies and signs. They're calling their representatives and talking about recalling Walker (who cannot be recalled until next January) or any of eight GOP state senators who are eligible for recall right now. Meanwhile, all of the  Democratic state senators have left the state in an attempt to deny Republicans the quorum they need to vote on Walker's proposals, but if just one of them returns (or is hauled back by state troopers), the GOP will have the quorum they need. (Interestingly, the head of the state patrol in the father of the Republican heads of the state senate and house of representatives, who are brothers.) Finally, Wisconsin public school teachers have been calling in sick, forcing schools to close while teachers in over a dozen other school districts picket the capitol, plan vigils, and set up phone banks to try to block Walker's effort.

How could this spread?

Other Republican-governed states are trying to mimic Walker's assault on public employee unions. The GOP won a resounding series of state-level victories in high-union-density states in November. Now they can use their newly-won power to crack down on one of the Democrats' biggest sources of funds, volunteers, and political power. Plans are already under consideration in places like Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

Speaking of Ohio:

As Suzy Khimm outlined on Friday, an estimated 3,800-5,000 protestors came out in full fury in Columbus, Ohio, to vent their anger over a similar anti-union bill that would limit workers' rights to bargain for health insurance, end automatic pay increases, and infringe upon teachers' rights to pick their classes and schools. As in Wisconsin, both the Ohio state house and governor's mansion flipped from blue to red last year. "This has little to do with balancing this year's budget," former Governor Ted Strickland told the AP. "I think it's a power grab. It's an attempt to diminish the rights of working people. I think it's an assault of the middle class of this state and it's so unfair and out of balance."

How are conservatives working to support Walker?:

It was only a matter of time till the Tea Party got in on the action. Stephanie Mencimer reports that activists are bussing into Madison, and are "promising a massive counter-demonstration." The push is being led by American Majority, a conservative activist group that trains impressionable young foot soldiers to become state-level candidates (check out their ""I Stand With Scott Walker Rally" Facebook page). Founded by Republican operatives, the well-funded group (which, according to tax fillings, had a budget of nearly $2 million in 2009) gets much of its money from a group with ties to those adorable Koch brothers. Conservative media baron Andrew Breitbart will be leading the rally, and will be joined by presidential candidate Herman Cain and maybe—if we're lucky—Joe "The Plumber" Wurtzelbacher. Expect fireworks.

How do I follow the action in real time?

I'll be on the ground in Madison, reporting on the action. You can follow my Twitter feed right here or skip down for the latest blog-style updates:

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What's Happening in Wisconsin Explained