Nobody came out of the Act 10 battle a decade ago looking good.
Not Scott Walker, the former Republican governor who rammed his union restrictions through the Legislature with only GOP votes, leading to massive protests in Madison and division throughout the state.
Not Democratic senators, who fled to Illinois in a failed and weak bid to prevent the law from being passed.
Not public sector unions, which tried and failed to recall Walker from office, giving him national province and a chance at the presidency.
And certainly not Wisconsin. The images of fierce partisanship, the flouting of good-government rules by GOP leaders, the threats of violence against elected officials of both political parties — all of that tarnished our state’s reputation as a friendly and respectful place with civic pride. Instead of moving “Forward,” which is Wisconsin’s motto, our state seemed to stagger and scowl.
Act 10 forced most public-employee unions to pay for their generous benefits to help eliminate a deep budget deficit following the Great Recession. The higher payments were justified as part of a budget-repair bill. Wisconsin needed to find savings, and voters had just swept Republicans into power. Walker, who pledged not to raise taxes, had battled unions as the conservative county executive of liberal-leaning Milwaukee County. So voters knew the kind of leader they were getting.
But the Republican governor had more in mind than state finances. He all but eliminated collective bargaining for the public sector unions that had favored his Democratic opponents in election campaigns. Walker punished the unions he disliked (leaving police and firefighters alone) by making it harder for them to collect dues and recertify themselves. Under Act 10, for example, it was no longer enough for unions to earn a majority of employees’ votes. Instead, they needed support from more than half of all eligible members. That meant even workers who didn’t participate in recertification votes would be counted as opposing the union.
Act 10 greatly reduced labor unions’ membership, income and power.
Republicans have enjoyed political advantages ever since. That’s why Walker — who survived the recall and won a second term before losing to Gov. Tony Evers in 2018 — remains a hero to many conservatives, and a villain to many liberals.
To the rest of us, Act 10 isn’t so simple. The early years of Walker’s first term were a dark time for civic life in Wisconsin. Just about everybody knew a public worker, so it was personal. People chose sides and scorned those who disagreed with them, even neighbors, friends and family.
Act 10 helped Walker balance his budget, and state finances improved. But it also reduced take-home pay for public employees. It hurt morale and steered some promising young people into other careers. When it comes to recruiting talented teachers, that’s not good for our children. Benefits fell sharply for teachers, and salaries lagged.
Yet Act 10 improved public schooling in some ways. It gave local school boards more discretion and control. School districts in Wisconsin, for example, can now pay the best teachers more money, according to their performance. That wasn’t just a Republican priority. Former Democratic President Barack Obama strongly supported merit pay.
Act 10 gave school principals more freedom to hire the best teachers for open jobs, rather than following seniority rules that gave preference to the longest-employed workers. Even in Madison, which has staunchly resisted Act 10’s changes, school leaders have had more control overs budgets, school schedules and staff.
Yet many of the benefits of public service have eroded. And over time, that risks diluting the quality of both job applicants and the public services many people rely on.
One decade after being introduced, Act 10 is still a mixed bag for Wisconsin. Some of its changes were needed. Some went overboard.
Walker’s biggest mistake was failing to seek broader public support or give any ground. The former governor and his partisan pals pushed too hard, too fast in a state that was used to some compromise.
The worst part was the division that infected people’s daily lives. May Wisconsin never experience such a nasty political battle again.