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Protests won't stop Walker's assault on Wisconsin's public employee unions

Protests are exactly what Walker wants. Either they're peaceful and accomplish nothing or violent and create a massive backlash. Either way, Walker wins.
Protests are exactly what Walker wants. Either they're peaceful and accomplish nothing or violent and create a massive backlash. Either way, Walker wins.
Credit:Bill Lueders
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My editor called me a short while ago to discuss how Isthmus can cover the coming days of protests over Gov. Scott Walker's effort to break the back of the state's public employee unions. Of course we have to do so, as these are major news events; but my feeling is that these rallies are a colossal waste of everybody's time, and exactly the reaction Gov. Walker hopes to inspire.

There's a Valentine's Day delivery of cutesy messages ("I ? UW: Governor Walker, Don't Break my ?") on Monday, and larger protests on Tuesday and Wednesday. They are expected to draw thousands of people to the state Capitol, for rallies, speeches and words of bitter dissent. And they will give the governor the dramatic and momentary confrontation he craves, to buff up his national image as a formidable dude, one who's willing to stand up to workers who have had it too good for too long.

On Friday, Walker announced that instead of negotiating with the state's unions he will unilaterally extract major changes in the benefits of the workers they represent, forcing them to pay half their pensions and more than doubling their share of health care costs. More importantly, his plan would take away the right of state and local unions, including those representing teachers, to collectively bargain for anything other than salaries. And it would set the stage for the eradication of public employee unions, by allowing any member who doesn't feel like it to avoid paying union dues and requiring annual secret-ballot recertification votes.

And, if all goes as planned, these sweeping changes could be passed by both houses of the state Legislature by the end of this week. The plan is to have one public hearing and virtually no debate. We might as well have elected Hosni Mubarak.

The scope and severity of Walker's assault on public employees is breathtaking. And while Walker has contemptuously dismissed people's shocked reactions, saying anyone who didn't see this coming must have been in a "coma," in fact even some members of his own party were surprised.

"The concept is pretty radical," remarked state Sen. Luther Olsen says of the Walker proposal, a Republic from Ripon, the birthplace of the Republican Party. "It affects a lot of good working people."

Of course, that doesn't mean Olsen, or any other member of the state GOP, will vote against the plan. The Republicans are nothing if not disciplined, and will likely vote lockstep with their new leader, as they have so far. The minority Democrats are powerless to stop them; and so are the protesters -- no matter how many there are, or how angry they might be.

Protests are exactly what Walker wants, because they can only lead to two outcomes: Either they are peaceful and accomplish nothing; or they turn violent and create a massive backlash against the unions and their members. Either way, Walker wins.

He knows this. That's why he's announced plans to bring in the Wisconsin National Guard to staff the prisons if guards strike, and presumably also to quell whatever disturbances might erupt.

The governor also knows exactly what kind of reaction -- sustained, militant, disciplined -- might put the kibosh on his power grab. That's why he's exempted law enforcement and firefighters from his union-busting scheme. He can always come after them later, when the destruction of other public employee unions makes them targets of popular resentment. Why should law enforcement have rights that no one else does?

It's not clear whether police and sheriffs deputies will sit out this attack on their union brethren, or perhaps even be available to crack a few heads if passions run high and clashes can be successfully instigated. But clearly Walker knows he can't get away with doing to cops what he plans to do to teachers, at least not yet.

The cops and deputies have cohesion, and resolve. Teachers and other public employees, on the other hand, are perfect victims. They aren't used to conflict, and they aren't very good at it. They will hoist their signs and chant their chants and lose their benefits and then their unions.

Could they fight back and win? Absolutely. But it would take a lot more resolve than Scott Walker and the Republicans give them credit for. It would take all-out campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience, including a willingness to risk physical abuse and mass arrest, again and again.

Instead of converging on the Capitol to hear speeches and shout slogans, maybe the public employees of Wisconsin should show their solidarity with each other by forming a human chain around it, to prevent anyone from coming and going.

The scene Walker wants to see is chanting crowds and, ideally, tear gas canisters being fired after stones get tossed. What if instead the unionized law enforcement officers were sent to use their muscles and clubs to break a human chain that just kept reforming, as row after row of resolutely nonviolent resisters were dragged off to jail? And what if actions like this went on not just for a few hours of a sunny February day but for weeks and months?

I'm not advocating this course of action. It may be too uncomfortable a role to foist on people like teachers and clerks who have worked hard and played by the rules all their lives. The truth is, people in this country are not taught to fight for our rights; we are taught to praise others for having done so.

Maybe, too, this is not a good idea. Maybe the protections and benefits that have come to public employees and their families -- and by extension, other union and nonunion workers throughout the state -- are simply not worth fighting for. That's a decision each worker has to make.

But one thing's for certain: Coming to a rally, or two or three, and chanting chants is not going to stop the governor's plan. If that's all unionists and their supporters are willing to do, they might as well skip these protests. Isthmus and other media outlets will be covering them, so they can always find out what they've missed.

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