Hunkered down in Illinois to block labor legislation back in Wisconsin, 14 Democratic senators gathered in Libertyville two years ago for a secret meeting at a teachers union office.
Arriving at the Illinois Education Association branch on Feb. 26, 2011, some Democrats in the group were surprised to find that they would be strategizing not just among themselves but also with three labor officials. That trio included the incoming head of a national teachers association, the biggest union in the country, who had worked with the Wisconsin lawmakers in the past and had just registered to lobby them again.
One senator skipped the meeting out of concerns over appearance and propriety. The other lawmakers got a pitch from the union leaders on why they should stay in Illinois to prevent a vote on Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to repeal most collective bargaining for most public employees.
“The undercurrent message was, ‘You’re winning; stay out,’ ” recalled former Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin of Conover, one of those attending the meeting.
Behind the scenes, there was more to the Republican governor’s fight with public employee unions than just Walker’s speeches and the massive protests of union supporters. An in-depth review reveals a rich backstory, including the undisclosed visit to Wisconsin by President Barack Obama’s campaign manager just before the effort to recall Walker; the role played by a conservative Milwaukee foundation in pushing labor legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere; and the tension between Walker’s office and law enforcement over handling the demonstrations that greeted the governor’s proposal.
Walker emerged from the legislative fight and the subsequent recall election with a majority of support among Wisconsin voters, deep opposition from Democrats, and a hero’s status among conservatives nationally. Public worker unions lost fundamental powers and in some cases their official status altogether.