The political tumult in Wisconsin reached full tilt yesterday as the state legislature prepared to give final approval to a controversial law stripping nearly all collective bargaining rights from public sector workers and dealing a potentially crippling blow to organised labour groups.
After three weeks of legislative deadlock and angry protests around the capitol building in Madison, the Republican majority in the State Senate used a parliamentary manoeuvre to finally push through the union-busting law, short-circuiting Democrats who had tried to block passage by fleeing across state lines. The Republicans found they were legally able to take a vote on the package by separating all provisions that related directly to the spending of public money.
Championed by the newly elected Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, the new law has already spurred other states, including Ohio and Indiana, to look at similar measures to reduce the power of public sector unions with an eye to lowering state payroll costs and tackling bloated public deficits.
It has been a long time – perhaps not since the sacking of air traffic controllers by Ronald Reagan – that the union movement has faced so serious an assault. The Wisconsin law not only bars nearly all collective bargaining but also forbids unions to collect dues with automatic deductions from wage packets or to oblige union members to pay dues.
"Senate Republicans have exercised the nuclear option to ram through their bill attacking Wisconsin's working families in the dark of night," said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, the main federation of America labour unions.
With national polls showing that most Americans are not ready to see any wholesale emasculation of union power, Democrats in the state and indeed nationally are hoping that events in Wisconsin will end up hurting the Republicans.
"In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin," said Mark Miller, the leader of the Senate Democrats who fled with 13 of his colleagues to Illinois to try to stop the final votes from happening. "Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten."
The numbers of protesters surrounding the State Senate building in Madison have swelled to more than 80,000 since the Republican plans were first proposed.
Governor Walker has portrayed the reforms as a critical part of his effort to get Wisconsin's budget back in balance, a challenged faced by nearly every other state governor in America.Reuse content