When filmmaker Michael Moore marched in Madison on the third cold Saturday of mass protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to strip public sector unions of collective bargaining rights, he reminded tens of thousands of Wisconsinites that they were scaring the most powerful players in America. “Never forget,” Moore exclaimed: “as long as that Constitution of ours still stands, it’s one person, one vote. And it’s the thing the rich hate most about America—because even though they seem to hold all the money and all the cards, they begrudgingly know this one unshakable, basic fact: there are more of us than there are of them!”
There’s no question that the mass mobilizations in Wisconsin and other states have scared the powerful. Some governors have parted company with Walker. But the most rigid Republicans remain determined to disempower public employee and teachers unions, still the strongest voice for maintaining social and education spending—and for electing progressive candidates, who usually run as Democrats. Power does not react gently to this sort of challenge.
As with the labor struggles of the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, today’s unions and their allies, when they start to flex their muscles, are met with official roadblocks designed to stifle dissent. In Ohio, when Republican legislators began to join Democrats in balking at Governor John Kasich’s sweeping push to prohibit collective bargaining on behalf of state employees, a Kasich ally, State Senate president Tom Niehaus, reshuffled committee assignments to save the bill. State Senator Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican who had criticized the bill and the rush to enact it without sufficient debate, was yanked from the Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee just before a key vote and replaced with a compliant Republican. Another Republican who had raised questions was removed from the Rules Committee in order to speed passage of the bill. The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association calls the gaming of the committee structure and the lack of serious debate “unconscionable.”
In Indiana, where a group of Democratic legislators fled the state to prevent swift passage of antilabor legislation, Republican House leaders socked them with $250-a-day fines. In Wisconsin, where the entire Senate Democratic caucus fled to Illinois to prevent passage of Walker’s bill, Republicans tried to impose $100-a-day fines. But the rhetoric and actions in the Badger State turned far uglier. State troopers were sent to the homes of Democratic legislators to search for them. Despite a constitutional bar on the arrest of legislators for anything but treason, felony or breach of the peace, Senate Republican leaders faked up a new charge, “contempt of the Senate,” and ordered that Democrats be forcibly detained. Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Walker ally, has spoken of punishing Democrats, perhaps even with expulsion. Top lawyers in Wisconsin say that’s an abuse and suggest that, if anything, Fitzgerald is in contempt of the Senate—and the Constitution. But contempt for the rule of law, as well as legislative practice, has run rampant in Madison. When the State Assembly was weighing Walker’s bill, Republican leaders sprang an unexpected vote, held the roll call open for just seventeen seconds and ended up excluding most Democrats from voting on the measure. And Walker’s administration closed most of the state Capitol in order to avoid more scenes like the ones of the first weeks of protest, when thousands of citizens crowded every corner of the building. After a judge ordered the building opened, the governor’s aides were so resistant that former Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, who represents key unions, had to return to the courtroom to press for enforcement of the order.
Wisconsin State Representative Cory Mason, a young Democrat from the blue-collar city of Racine, said it well. “The Republican leadership seems to have a real problem with free speech. First they try to take away the voice of public employees and teachers in the workplace. Then they try to limit debate in the legislative chambers and threaten those legislators who try to force a better dialogue,” he argued. “And then, when all else failed, they try to close the Capitol. That shows you just how scared they are.” Indeed, but it also illustrates the need for defenders of the rule of law and civil liberties to ramp up efforts to maintain open and honest debate. And they’d better move fast—the battles for economic rights and democracy itself are coming to a head.