MADISON, Wis. – With the labor movement heading to an epic defeat in Wisconsin and perhaps other states, union leaders plan to use the setback to fire up working people nationwide and mount a major counterattack against Republicans at the ballot box in 2012.
Wisconsin's measure stripping public employees of most bargaining rights swiftly advanced toward GOP Gov. Scott Walker's desk Thursday, and he promised to sign it as soon as possible. But labor leaders say the events in Wisconsin have helped galvanize support for unions across the country, and they hope to use the momentum to help fight off the attacks and grow their membership.
Said the president of the AFL-CIO: "I guess I ought to say thank you particularly to Scott Walker. We should have invited him here today to receive the Mobilizer of the Year award from us!"
While several states seek to follow Wisconsin's lead, newly invigorated public unions are looking ahead to the next election, as Democrats press to recall Republican opponents of organized labor and turn the debate into a focal point of the 2012 campaign.
The Republican-controlled Senate used a legislative maneuver to quickly pass the bill Wednesday without any of the 14 Democrats who fled to Illinois three weeks ago.
Only a day later, Democrats said their efforts were already beginning to bear fruit in the form of donations: The party's Wisconsin chapter said it raised $300,000 overnight and has collected $800,000 from 32,000 donors in just five days. Party chairman Mike Tate said Senate Democrats have raised $750,000 over the past month alone.
Republicans said they were simply doing what voters wanted.
In last year's election, "people spoke very clearly and very loudly and said they wanted government to change here in Madison," Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said prior to Thursday's vote. "It's a tough vote, but it's the right vote. People are sick of the status quo."
On Thursday afternoon, the Assembly followed the Senate's lead, voting 53-42 to adopt the bill. Four Republicans joined all Democrats in opposing it. The vote drew shouts of "shame, shame, shame" from protesters in the gallery.
Shortly before the vote, police had to move dozens of protesters who were sitting just outside the Assembly chamber doors, blocking the way for lawmakers. Officers dragged many of them away, but there were no arrests.
The protesters have been a constant presence in the building for more than three weeks, with their numbers swelling to more than 80,000 for one weekend rally.
"This is ultimately about a commitment to the future, so our children don't face even more dire consequences than what we face today," Walker said at a news conference in the West Allis community of Milwaukee. He said the bill would prevent layoffs of 1,500 state workers.
His proposal touched off a national debate over labor rights for public employees, and its implementation would be a key victory for Republicans, many of whom have targeted unions in efforts to slash government spending.
Labor organizations have already pledged to pour more than $30 million into efforts to stop legislation in dozens of states seeking to limit public workers' bargaining rights or otherwise curb union power. Union officials are helping to mobilize protesters in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states to keep the pressure on.
"Gov. Walker's over-reaching has brought us to this moment to be able to talk about jobs, to be able to talk about the right to collective bargaining," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Thursday in Washington. "This is the debate we've wanted to have for 25 years. Well, guess what? Suddenly the debate came to us."
Union officials say they will also help pursue recall campaigns against GOP officials who support curbing union rights.
Walker introduced the proposal to ease a $137 million deficit, but in order to pass it without any Democrats present, most of the spending provisions were removed because they would have required 20 senators to be present. That means another bill will have to be passed later that actually addresses the budget.
Walker and Republicans argued from the outset that the collective bargaining measures were directly related to balancing the budget and for weeks refused to separate the two ideas. The fact that they did so in the end to pass the legislation shows that their true intent was to abolish unions, said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca.
"To me the charade is over," Barca said.
Walker had repeatedly argued that ending collective bargaining would give local governments flexibility to confront the budget cuts needed to fix the deficit, which is projected to grow to $3.6 billion deficit over several years. Without the changes, he has said, the government may have to lay off 1,500 workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.
Barca and Democratic leaders said the move will not only energize unions but efforts to recall Republicans from office. Eight Republican senators and six Democrats are being targeted for recalls. Recall efforts against Walker cannot start until Nov. 3.
Kristopher Rowe, the main organizer of efforts to recall Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, said the group has collected about $3,000 in donations since Wednesday's Senate vote. Rowe said the group has "several thousand signatures" and more than 1,000 volunteers to canvass for more.
Darling, who won her 2008 election by 1,007 votes, said she stands by her vote and will continue to defend the position if drawn into a recall election.
"The test is what the voters decide to do," Darling said. "I'm just going to keep going to work for the people, and I'm certainly going to defend this position because this is what I was sent here to do in the last election."
The political fallout from Walker's agenda could continue for years — through recall efforts and possible court action and on the campaign trail.
"Once you fundamentally threaten the existence of unions, key support for the Democratic Party, there's no way to settle this except in future elections," said University of Wisconsin political science professor Charles Franklin.
Walker's legislation forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation unless approved by referendum. It also requires public workers to pay more toward their pensions and double their health insurance contribution, a combination equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker.
Police and firefighters are exempt.
Senate Democrats who fled to Illinois were on their way back on Thursday. Sen. Jim Holperin said he didn't expect any of them to go to the Capitol because the Senate wasn't scheduled to be in session until April 5.
Legal efforts to undo the Senate's action also moved forward Thursday, with prominent Democrats asking a court to rule that a hastily called committee meeting involving critical changes to the bill violated the state's open meetings law.
The Department of Justice was also investigating death threats from several sources against Republican senators.