Wisconsin Budget Battle: A Familiar Tale?

Citizens of the state of Wisconsin may be growing a wee bit weary of the apocalyptic language with which supporters of Republican Governor Scott Walker and public sector union leaders are describing their epic battle. Nevertheless, Hollywood itself couldn’t have scripted a more action-packed array of events to match what is now occurring in and around America’s Dairyland.

Police troopers, for instance, have been dispatched to the homes of Democratic legislators to escort them to the state Capitol. To escape such ignominy, those very legislators have fled the state as fugitives, and have rented motel rooms in undisclosed locations. Meanwhile, thousands of raucous union demonstrators have seized control of the Capitol building and are refusing to go home, while a practical joker has lured the Governor into an embarrassing phone conversation and has released a recording of their comments to the public.

As political disputes go, it all seems horribly unprecedented in tone, scope, and content, doesn’t it? In many ways, though, the current Wisconsin battle is simply reflective of similar disputes that have (and currently are) being waged across our nation.

A Bizarre Plot

The Wisconsin saga began when a relatively young and charismatic gubernatorial candidate named Scott Walker swept into office, vowing to bring the state’s budget deficit under control by demanding concessions from public sector unions. However, the unions soon learned that he wasn’t simply focusing on demands for financial concessions; he introduced legislation that would deny the unions their fundamental right to bargain collectively as a unit as well.

Union leaders perceived this legislative proposal as an existential challenge to their authority, and sent thousands of protestors to swarm the Capitol building and bring the state’s political processes to a grinding halt. Meanwhile, fourteen Democratic legislators refused to report to work, gambling (apparently correctly) that they could prevent the Republican majority from passing anti-union legislation by failing to appear and thus denying the Legislature a working quorum. When the outraged Governor ordered the state police to track down the legislators and escort them to the Capitol, the legislators fled to neighboring Illinois.

The plot took an even more bizarre turn when a practical joker fooled Governor Walker into believing that he was a wealthy donor named David Koch; he pulled the Governor into an embarrassing telephone conversation that encompassed, among other topics, an admission that Walker was considering a plan to lure the Democratic legislators back to the Capitol to establish a quorum. The practical joker then released a recording of the conversation to the public, exacerbating the situation.

A Unique Situation? Think Again!

Is this truly a unique situation? It may indeed represent an unusually colorful confluence of political intrigue and conflict, but most of the core elements of the story are actually strikingly similar to various strategies and tactics that have been employed for many years, and that continue to be utilized today.

Legislators fleeing a state to prevent an opposition party from achieving a quorum, for instance, is a tactic that was employed by Texas state legislators in 2003, and that is also being utilized by Indiana legislators today. The tactic has been employed on a global level as well; the Soviet Union, for instance, boycotted meetings of the Security Council of the United Nations to protest Taiwan’s voting presence on the Council instead of Communist China’s. The Soviets may not have anticipated the Security Council’s willingness to declare war on Communist North Korea without it; the Soviets later returned to the Council but could not reverse the declaration.

Furthermore, a number of states and municipalities have already restricted the rights of public sector unions to organize into groups, to engage in collective bargaining, and to strike and take other aggressive actions. Democratic Mayor Ed Koch of New York City, for instance, used the Taylor Law in 1980 to restrict the right of transit union workers to launch a strike; Republican Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana similarly signed restrictions against collective bargaining into law in 2005.

And phone call pranks have been part of the political landscape for many years. Luminaries from Sarah Palin to Tony Blair have been fooled into believing that they were speaking to famous individuals who proved to be pranksters; embarrassing revelations have sometimes resulted from such incidents.

Nothing New Under the Sun

The Korean War? The Ed Koch era? And Tony Blair’s administration? These time frames spanned the entire length of the latter half of the twentieth century; they all presaged the political shenanigans that are now occurring in Wisconsin.

Thus, although the politicians who are currently embroiled in these events tend to portray their situations as being unprecedented in nature, we might remind ourselves that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun of political intrigue. Whatever the resolution of the current battles in Wisconsin, it is likely that unions – strengthened or diminished – will indeed survive to fight another day.