During pandemic Wisconsin is better off than Illinois, where unions can thwart policies.
It has been nearly a decade since a newly-elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker pulled off the Act 10 surprise. With the help of Republicans fully in control of both the Assembly and Senate after the 2010 election, the measure to curb the power of public employee unions dramatically changed the management-labor relationship in Wisconsin government.
Not without an eruption of protest and political rancor, though, as readers will recall. An estimated 100,000 protesters descended on the Capitol in Madison. They surrounded the building, entered its halls, shouted, beat drums and generally made day-to-day operations difficult for the duration. But in the end -- albeit after minority Senate Democrats disappeared to Illinois for awhile to thwart quorum rules -- Act 10 was adopted and became the basis for local and state labor relations with public unions.
By the way, it’s worth digressing for a moment to look back at the Madison protests because some have tried to equate the Act 10 dissent to the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. It’s a false equivalency. Act 10 protesters were loud and disruptive and rude. They were not rioting or killing or injuring cops and others as occurred in January. The First Amendment protected Act 10 demonstrators’ rights to gather and protest, as it protected the Jan. 6 rally and march to the nation’s Capitol building -- right up to the point where the assault on police took place. That's a crime.
When Act 10 was introduced and passed the Beloit Daily News expressed its differences with the Walker plan, which mostly related to process. In a democratic society, surprise usually amounts to bad government. Act 10 made sweeping changes and deserved deliberative consideration to allow maximum input and an effort to find common ground, but instead the plan was dropped on citizens and stakeholders alike without warning and then fast-tracked for adoption. That was Walker’s mistake, failing to take the time to sell the plan on its merits.
The sale would have been eminently makeable. Public employee unions had become too powerful, and there was a strong case for balancing the scales by enhancing management rights. Besides, even after the Act 10 changes, public employees continued to have access to compensation and benefits that compared favorably to what was available to private sector workers. A less heavy-handed approach from Walker and majority legislators could have made that case and lessened the partisan rancor that still echoes today throughout Wisconsin government.
Even so, a decade later, there’s no doubt Wisconsin is better off with Act 10 in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Managing the crisis for local governments -- particularly public schools -- is not easy. But at least local authorities are empowered to make sound management decisions that fit their own communities.
Look across the line in Illinois for just how dysfunctional it can be when unions demand to call the shots. Democrat-controlled state government in Springfield traditionally has been union-friendly to a fault, a factor contributing mightily to the difficulty of managing pandemic responses that make sense for families.
Mind you, not every district or every local school union has been unable to find reason and common ground. Districts across the line in the Stateline Area mostly have experienced cooperation between management and employees.
But Chicago has become the nation’s most embarrassing example of adults feuding at the expense of children. The showdown between officials and the public school union has been dispiriting and depressing, particularly in a major city district known for failing kids for decades.
As authorities have pressed over time to resume in-class education models, the union has flatly refused. Negotiations to establish a plan have dragged on and it's unclear if a tentative deal just reached will hold. Meanwhile, students in a poor-performing district clearly are the last consideration.
Without Act 10’s empowering of management rights, Wisconsin could have encountered similar problems. Elected officials can act, as they choose, on this side of the border.
Obviously, it’s a hodgepodge around the state with some districts operating in classrooms, some with hybrids and others reluctant to resume in-school education.
The controversy in the Beloit school district is a case in point. To date, the school board has been late to bring students back to classrooms. The community is divided on the wisdom of that policy. But because of Act 10 the decision lies squarely within the power of the elected board members, with or without the concurrence of the Beloit Education Association.
So those who like what’s happening can credit elected board members. And those who are upset know who to blame.
Ten years after Act 10, Walker is gone, defeated at the polls by Tony Evers in 2018. Republicans still control both houses of the Legislature, not insignificantly because they shamelessly gerrymandered the state after the 2010 elections. That’s a subject for another day.
Walker’s legacy forever will be linked to Act 10. All in all, citizens are better off because it passed.