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Wisconsin union protests end with a whimper

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The Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld a 2011 state law, Act 10, limiting the scope of collective bargaining for public employee unions — and ending automatic dues subtraction from members’ paychecks.

It is hardly a rogue opinion. The law has twice been upheld in federal appellate courts.

What’s interesting is the reaction of the Democratic challenger to Wisconsin GOP incumbent Gov. Scott Walker, who introduced the law in 2011.

One of the things the law requires is higher contributions to pension and health care costs from public employees. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, reports the Associated Press, supports those higher contributions. And, the AP reports, “while she supports restoring collective bargaining, Burke has not promised to work for the repeal of Act 10 if elected.”

Why is this so interesting? Because tens of thousands of public union members and their allies flooded the Wisconsin state capitol building for weeks in 2011, taking over all public spaces and camping out in an effort to block passage of the bill.

More marched outside the capitol.

Democratic state senators fled the state for two weeks to avoid providing the legislature’s upper chamber with a quorum to pass the bill.

Democratic local judges immediately threw roadblocks in front of the legislation. Recalls were mounted against Walker and some state lawmakers. (Walker and most of the legislators survived the recalls.)

And now, after the tumult and the shouting, the Democratic standard-bearer for governor is being coy about seeking a repeal and supporting higher union member contributions for pension and health insurance.

What happened in the meantime? Well, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Wisconsin reported a drop in membership from nearly 63,000 to about 29,000 between 2011 and 2012.

Some union members voted to decertify their unions.

In other words, once a reform has weathered all the noise, and it turns out the public supports the reformers, its opponents back off.

Maybe Burke will defeat Walker, but thus far, if the AP is correct, she doesn’t seem to be making the union reforms the centerpiece of her campaign.

Something similar happened in Michigan in the early 1990s. One of the first items in former Gov. John Engler’s welfare reform agenda was ending General Assistance, a welfare program for single, able-bodied adults. (Single parents with children continued to receive aid.)

As the legislation was being pushed through the state House and Senate in Lansing, there were vocal protests. The Other Paper couldn’t refer to Engler without the adjective “mean-spirited.”

Democratic candidates in the primaries to oppose Engler in subsequent elections loudly denounced the repeal of General Assistance.

But when they came to The News’ editorial board, former edit page editor Tom Bray would ask each, “Based on your statements, am I correct in assuming your first act as governor would be to restore the General Assistance program?”

To a man, they said, “Well, er . . . no.”

The moral here for conservative reformers? Sometimes you just have to rip the bandage off and ignore the squawking. It will die down.

Jeff Hadden
Jeffrey Hadden is the former deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News. A 40-year veteran of The News, Hadden covered the FBI, the auto industry, and the courts in addition to his time on the editorial page. He writes frequently on judicial issues as well as on politics and public policy. He was a columnist for The Michigan View, and has received editorial and column writing awards from the Michigan Associated Press, Michigan UPI, Detroit Press Club Foundation, and the National Press Club and Bicentennial Commission on the U.S. Constitution.