Big labor stumbles in Wisconsin: in a showdown with Gov. Scott Walker, democracy is the big winner.

Author:Higgins, Sean
Position::Book review

More Than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions, and the Fight for Wisconsin, by Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, University of Wisconsin Press, 350 pages, $26.95

IT'S NOT CLEAR who first introduced the chant "this is what democracy looks like" to the epic early-2011 showdown in Wisconsin between angry public-sector union workers and newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The protesters shouting the phrase surely meant to insist that they were the true voice of the people. But despite the sheer size and raucous noise of the crowds that packed the Wisconsin State Capitol for weeks protesting Walker's proposed legislation to roll back union benefits and prerogatives, the demonstrators ultimately lost every fight that mattered. They lost because the voting public in Wisconsin approved of Walker's plan, albeit narrowly.


The people had already spoken when they elected a Republican governor and legislative majority in 2010. Democracy then re-affirmed Walker's controversial decisions even under the glare of a nationwide spotlight and a hostile press. Nevertheless, the sloganeers were correct, just not in the way they intended.

As Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporters Jason Stein and Patrick Marley note in their book More Than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions, and the Fight for Wisconsin, "The citizens of Wisconsin and indeed the country as a whole, sometimes derided as apathetic and out of touch, showed that they were eager to engage on both sides, to defend the rights of workers and to safeguard the state's financial future." The engaged activists "marched, they sent hundreds of thousands of emails and tweets, and they overwhelmingly held themselves to a peaceful, democratic purpose, which asserted itself even in the face of the many exceptions to that general rule. Likewise, the police and authorities also managed to handle the protests without serious injury or loss of life on either side. When it came time to vote, citizens set turnout records."

Engaged citizenry, vigorous debate, productive legislatures: This is everything that good-government types usually pine for. Yet most national media outlets viewed the Walker/union battle as something distasteful and unfortunate. "How did Wisconsin become the most divisive place in America?" clucked a New Fork Times headline.

One of the greatest motivators for political participation, it turns out, is bitter division. As Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Beaver Dam) put it in February 2011, "Democracy isn't pretty all the time."

In their admirably evenhanded account, Stein and Marley leave readers to their own conclusions. But More Than They Bargained For suggests that the Wisconsin fight was less a failure of the Badger State's democratic traditions than an example of how strong those traditions remain.

Wisconsin is the birthplace of public-sector unions. The nation's largest such organization, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), was founded there in 1932 as the Wisconsin State Employees Association. That history fueled the outraged response to Walker's attempted rollback of labor's power. This was their home turf. If it could happen there, it could happen anywhere.


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