Defective Democracy

"The tide is turning, and people are turning against this bill to take away worker rights in Wisconsin," says a determined state Sen. Mark Miller, a Democrat from Wisconsin, his voice hoarse from a non-stop schedule of interviews with media from around the nation. "If the governor remains intransigent, there will be consequences," he vowed.

Miller is one of 14 fugitive Democratic state senators who refuse to be present in the State Senate, denying the 17 Republicans Senators a chance to pass of the nation's most radical assault on public-employee rights ever witnessed. The 14 Democrats have been given "religious sanctuary," as Miller put it, by interfaith groups in Illinois. They are thus outside the jurisdiction of the Wisconsin State Patrol, which Gov. Scott Walker sent after the absent Democrats to force a vote on the bill he introduced February 11.

There hasn't been such an intense national spotlight on worker rights since the 1930's. While state troopers are out looking for the Democrats, Republican lawmakers have introduced a slew of regressive measures they can pass without the Democrats as a way to try to lure them back to work. But for Miller and the others, there's too much at stake. "Anybody who appreciates the benefits of democracy understand that if you introduce a bill like this on a Friday afternoon and expect it to be passed within four days, it is an insult to democracy," Miller says.

Gov. Walker's .proposal, contained within a budge-repair bill, would both extract pay and benefit concessions from workers and restrict public-employees negotiations to wages alone, limit contracts to one year, require unions to get re-certified by their members annually, forbid them from collecting fees from members for the costs of providing legally-required representation, and numerous other onerous features.

Since Feb. 15, tens of thousands of pro-union demonstrators from around the state and nation have filled the Capitol's ornate Rotunda and held spirited rallies with national figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who told a Friday night crowd that "this is a Martin Luther King moment" when people are called upon to protect fundamental rights. The following day, an even bigger throng estimated at 55,000 to 70,000 circled the Capitol. "It became time to stand up for worker rights in Wisconsin, and this is where we had to draw the line," Miller says. "The protesters, who have been coming out in unprecedented numbers, have given us the conviction to hold firm."

Since the 14 Democrats fled the Senate chambers, Walker and his allies have been on the offensive against them, accusing them of shirking their jobs, failing to represent their constituents, and thwarting democracy. Meanwhile, the major public-sector unions including AFSCME and the Wisconsin Education Association Council offered to accept substantial pay and benefit concessions -- variously estimated at 6.8 percent to 11 percent -- in exchange for Walker withdrawing his restrictions on bargaining rights. Walker flatly turned the offer down, saying that local government officials needed to be given more flexibility, as they have long requested.

"The governor is just making this stuff up," Miller says. All the calls I have received from local public officials, including people who are nominally Republican, are about wanting Walker to let them have the ability to treat their employees decently." Further, local bodies including school boards in Madison and Shorewood have passed resolutions critical of Walker's move to virtually eliminate public-sector bargaining.

The opposition party has, likewise, tried to force the Democrats hand. Furious with Miller and the other Democrats, Republican state Senators have threatened to rapidly pass a number of bills to which the Democrats object -- the quorum requirement of 20 applies only to budgetary matters -- including the most restrictive voter ID law in the nation. If it is upheld in the courts, it would substantially depress voter turnout among people of color, the poor, and the elderly who most often lack drivers' licenses.

What's especially odd is that the governor could get what he wants, if he just backed down. Walker has the opportunity to claim victory because he's getting contract concessions, Miller says. He should take that deal. "The people of this state want a compromise," says Miller. When you go too far like [the] governor and people are demonstrating in unprecedented numbers, a wised leader would come to his senses and compromise. He would realize he's a governor, not a dictator. "

If successful, Walker's attempted rollback of worker bargaining rights would likely be followed by other Republican governors like Ohio's John Kasich, New Jersey's Chris Christie, and Indiana's Mitch Daniels. "All the other legislation is a sideshow, sort of a distraction from the main attack on democratic rights contained in Gov. Walker's bill on public worker rights," Miller contended.

The Tea Party's counter-rally featuring conservative celebrities like the blogger Andrew Breitbart and Tim Phillips, leader of Americans for Prosperity, drew only 2,000 people, reinforcing the Democrats' confidence in their public support. (A recent poll showed 65% of Wisconsin citizens (excluding public employees) opposed the Walker bill, including over 60% of independents.) They remain solid in holding out, says Miller, and the movement to protect worker rights is growing and generating excitement.
But if the Wisconsin public employees and their allies fail to out-last Walker and his allies, the results will be devastating for, and across the nation.

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