Madison, Wisc. (Reuters) — Scott Walker, Wisconsin's newly elected Republican governor, won his battle last week to get the curbs he backed on public-sector unions approved by the state legislature and signed into law.
But the Democratic Party and organized labour, which opposed the bill, show signs of being energized by the setback, which up-ends more than 50 years of collective bargaining by nurses, highway workers and other Wisconsin public employees.
Mark Pocan, a Democratic member of the Assembly who opposed the Walker bill, told protesters this week: "They may have won the battle, but I guarantee you they've lost the war."
With Republican majorities in both the state Assembly and the Senate making a legislative counter-attack impossible, Democrats and their allies are focusing their hopes on a number of fronts, including eventually a recall campaign for Walker.
"Rock on, keep the faith and don't worry," said one protester, Amy Barlow Liberatore. "Recalls are coming."
Under Wisconsin state law, however, Walker's foes can't even circulate a petition to recall him until Jan. 3, 2012, his one-year anniversary in office.
But a group called United Wisconsin has set up a website (www.unitedwisconsin.com) it says already has 149,000 voters pledge to sign the recall petitions next year. More than 540,000 signatures will be necessary to launch a recall.
As many as 100,000 people protested at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Saturday against the new curbs on public worker unions, and they greeted as returning heroes 14 Democratic lawmakers who had fled the state to stall the measure.
About 70,000 protesters had massed a week earlier, before a legislative maneuver by Republicans in the senate hived off the controversial union measure from a budget bill and pushed it through without a single Democrat present.
"You do not understand," Assembly minority leader Pete Barca told the giant rally on Saturday, addressing Governor Walker. "Rights die hard in America."
Wisconsin was birthplace for some of the first U.S. unions among foundry, shoe and paper workers in the 19th century. It was the first state to pass worker compensation protections in 1911, unemployment compensation in 1932, and public employee collective bargaining rights in 1959, according to the Wisconsin Labor History Society.
The new law, by contrast, strips public sector unions of collective bargaining rights except for wages, with increases limited to the level of inflation. Pay rises above inflation have to be put to a referendum of voters. Unions have to be recertified by annual votes of members and dues collected privately. Health insurance and pension contributions rise.
Lawsuits, high-court race also targeted
Wisconsin in the last month became the focal point of a national debate over how to restore the finances of U.S. states and local governments struggling under a mountain of debt.
Unions — a key source of funding for Democrats — fear the Wisconsin law will bolster Republicans in other states to cut spending by targeting public workers. Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Florida and Iowa have similar legislative moves pending.
So while the Wisconsin one-year rule blocks immediate recall efforts against Walker and Republican legislators elected last November, Wisconsin Democrats and their allies are moving on multiple fronts in other ways.
"I have never, never, never seen anything like this," said Scott Becher, a former Republican legislative aide who now runs a political consulting and public relations firm outside the capital. "Democrats have never been more energized."
Democrats are circulating petitions to recall 8 Republican state senators who approved the controversial measure.
Republicans currently enjoy a 19-14 advantage in the state Senate. So if Democrats can flip just three of the districts they're targeting, recalling the Republican senators and getting a Democrat elected, they can take control of the body.
Democrats have also filed a complaint with the district attorney of Dane County, where the Capitol is located, charging the maneuver Republicans used to get the bill passed without a quorum in the Senate violated the state's Open Meetings law.
Democrats have set their sights on the April 5 race for a 10-year term on the state's Supreme Court, where the incumbent, a Republican named David Prosser, faces a Democrat named JoAnne Kloppenburg, whose supporters have joined the protest rallies.
Self-described judicial conservatives have a 4-3 majority on the state high court. So a victory in that race could help Democrats in legal challenges to Walker's anti-union measure.
In a sign of how the union debate may be affecting the political calculus for Republicans, a town hall meeting in Wauwatosa on March 7 hosted by U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner, a popular conservative Republican who represents the area in Congress, adjourned early because it was besieged by crowds opposed to Walker's measures in Madison.