Legend says it started over the desire of some barefooted rebels to get a pair of shoes. They approached the small Pennsylvania town and accidentally encountered the enemy. A skirmish started when a few Confederate brigades tangled with a few from the Union. Those initial shots were the beginning of the end of the Confederacy’s high-water mark in the Civil War. Two days later the tide turned when Gen. Pickett’s decimated command briefly breeched the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge but then were thrown back, effectively ending the Battle of Gettysburg and foretelling the end of the Confederacy.
On the night of August 9, in the suburbs of Milwaukee, there was, in a metaphorical sense, another desperate charge up a Cemetery Ridge. The effects might be as telling.
In 1932 in Madison, Wisconsin the Wisconsin State Employees Union (WSEU) was born and with it the genesis of public sector unionism in America. The WSEU was not formed as a vehicle for collective bargaining or a tool to attempt to dominate local, state, and national elections. Those aims came about decades later when it was transformed into the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Wisconsin was the birthplace of public sector unions. The events of August 9 raise the question of whether AFSCME and other public sector unions reached their high-water marks there.
In the elections of 2010, Republican Scott Walker was elected governor and the GOP ran roughshod in legislative elections, gaining significant majorities in both chambers. Walker and many Republicans ran on a platform of reforming the state’s collective bargaining laws to address the severe deficits being run by the state and local governments. All unions—but particularly AFSCME and the public sector unions—raised huge sums of money and organized a well-oiled voter turnout operation to defeat the Republicans.
Elections have consequences.
Walker and the GOP majorities enacted landmark legislation designed to amend the collective bargaining laws to require public employees to pay slightly higher rates for their health care and pensions. In the short amount of time since the laws passed, the state budget and numerous ones at the local government level have moved into the black from the red—in part due to the collective bargaining changes.
The “skirmish” over the collective bargaining legislation quickly escalated in the legislature and beyond. Democratic state senators left the state to break a quorum in a feeble attempt to stall the passage of the legislation. As soon as the laws were signed by Governor Walker, recall petitions were successfully circulated and elections for seven Republicans and two Democrats were set. Before those elections occurred, a Wisconsin state supreme court race turned into a proxy fight between unions and the GOP when Justice David Prosser was unsuccessfully targeted by the Democrats.
As the returns came in on the evening of August 9, it was obvious that the recall effort was going to be close. One Republican had successfully beaten back a recall attempt a few weeks earlier. Six more faced recall that evening. If three of the six were recalled, the state senate would be back in Democratic hands and Governor Walker’s agenda would be thwarted. Early on two of the GOP senators won easily. Another was obviously heading for defeat. Later in the evening, another Republican won in a relatively close race and yet another—who was somewhat mired in scandal—lost in a nail-biter. That left one race to determine whether the senate remained Republican or went to the Democrats.
After midnight, Senator Alberta Darling, a 20-year veteran, had pulled ahead by several thousand votes, but 59 precincts remained in Milwaukee County, her weakest area. Most of those votes ended up being in the suburbs and those suburban voters chose not to return senate control to the Democrats.
On the evening of July 3, 1863, Robert E. Lee began his withdrawal towards Williamsburg. His train of wounded stretched 14 miles. Tight budgets and private sector concerns over costly public sector pensions and benefits inflicted a series of defeats on the public employee unions in Wisconsin. Time will tell if it leads from Madison to their Appomattox.