- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2011

Capping weeks of political drama and open political warfare with the state’s public-sector unions, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Friday quietly signed landmark legislation reining in the power of public-employee unions after a pitched battle over collective bargaining that shows no signs of abating.

Mr. Walker signed the measure a day after the GOP-dominated state Assembly approved the bill on a 53-42 vote, marking the end of a bitter three-week struggle at the Capitol in Madison that pitted the budget-cutting Republican governor and legislature against Democratic lawmakers and union demonstrators who framed the debate as a battle for the survival of the labor movement.

“This is ultimately about a commitment to the future, so our children don’t face even more dire consequences than what we face today,” Mr. Walker said at a news conference in the West Allis community of Milwaukee on Thursday. He signed the bill privately Friday and planned a ceremonial public signing and a press conference later in the day.

Also on Friday morning, Mr. Walker directed two state agencies to rescind layoff notices because the legislature had passed the bill. He argued the layoff notices were needed to prepare the state in case the budget standoff dragged on.

Thursday’s Assembly vote came a day after the Wisconsin Senate approved the bill 18-1 by using a legislative maneuver that allowed the chamber to vote without the 14 Democratic senators who fled the state in an effort to block the legislation.

After the vote Thursday, Assembly members filed out of the chamber as demonstrators in the packed gallery shouted, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” The bill passed with no Democratic support, while four Republicans crossed party lines to oppose the measure.

Republicans said they were following the will of the voters. “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.”

Even with the bill’s passage, however, union supporters vowed the fight was far from over.

Organizers have launched a multifront effort to gain back their lost collective-bargaining ability that is expected to include a recall effort, at least one court challenge and a national walkout.

“What we have done, I think, is started a movement not only in Wisconsin but throughout this country — people standing up for workers’ rights and backing away from protecting the rich and the wealthy,” said Wisconsin state Sen. David Hansen on CBS-TV’s “The Early Show.”

David Madland, director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, said the Wisconsin vote had triggered a nationwide pro-union movement. Even before Thursday’s vote, unions had begun the process of gathering signatures to recall the governor and as many as eight Republican state legislators.

“The big question is whether this is a short-term, Pyrrhic victory for Gov. Walker,” said Mr. Madland. “I think he’s sown the seeds of his own destruction and for a union revival.”

The Wisconsin bill ends collective bargaining, except for pay raises at or below the rate of inflation. The state will no longer collect dues on behalf of the unions, and union members must vote periodically to retain their union representation.

Mr. Walker argued that the legislation was necessary to keep down state spending — Wisconsin has a $137 million budget shortfall — and create a more job-friendly climate.

Union organizers said the bill would cripple state workers’ ability to negotiate on their own behalf.

Labor backers predicted that the Wisconsin rallies, when protesters stormed the legislative chambers, clashed with police and defaced the Capitol, could be repeated throughout the nation. At least seven other states have moved forward with their own Wisconsin-style proposals.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who led a prayer before the Assembly session Thursday, told Fox News that the backlash could get ugly unless union-breaking Republicans capitulate.

“So they’re going to escalate the protests — you will either have collective bargaining through a vehicle called collective bargaining or you’re going to have it through the streets,” said Mr. Jackson. “People here will fight back because they think their cause is moral and they have nowhere else to go.”

Organizers called for public school students nationwide to walk out of class Friday afternoon in a show of support for Wisconsin teachers. Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore announced the walkout Wednesday on MSNBC-TV’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

“This is war. This is class war,” Mr. Moore said.

Conservatives countered that the televised reports of angry pro-union mobs would have the opposite effect of increasing support for curbs on collective bargaining.

“I think governors will be emboldened. I think the public employees unions have been a weight around their necks for too long, and this is their chance,” said Steve Gunn, a spokesman for the Education Action Group in Michigan, which advocates public school reform.

The measure is expected to be challenged in court over the legality of the Senate vote. In the absence of Democratic senators, Republicans removed spending provisions from the bill, making it a collective-bargaining measure instead of a fiscal bill that would have required a 20-member quorum before a vote.

Critics also insisted that not enough notice was given for the conference committee meeting in which Republicans carved up the bill. The Senate chief clerk later released a statement saying the rules allow no advance notice for meetings when the chamber is in special session.

Analysts predicted the bill could wind up in limbo if a judge issues an injunction preventing the measure from taking effect until legal issues are resolved.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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