At a Wisconsin Town Hall, the Mood Turns Against Compromise


REEDSBURG, Wisc. -- At a town hall meeting held in this rural community on Sunday afternoon, Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz faced loud opposition to a proposed compromise he said could end the legislative stalemate over union rights that's led to close to three weeks of protests in his state.

Schultz has proposed an amendment that freezes collective bargaining rights for public employees for two years, and said he though that would be a fair compromise -- and one that could end the standoff in Madison over Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget repair bill.

"I believe it could head off a passionate explosion," Schultz told the 300 hundred person crowd seated inside of the Pineview elementary school gymnasium.

The word "no" reverberated loudly through the crowd, while many others shook their heads silently.

"That won't do!" an audience member called out to the senator.

Their reaction suggests that the plummet in support for Walker among Wisconsin voters since the standoff began -- his negative rating is up 18 points since November and his "strongly unfavorable" rating shot up to 41 percent from just 19 percent then -- could also be something affecting Republicans further down the ballot.

Several audience members who took the microphone during the three hour program reminded the senator that public employees were already making a compromise, and that The Teacher's Association of Reedsburg said members are willing to pay up to 15 percent of their health care and have wages frozen.

Schultz pointed out in reply that other public employee unions, such as the police and firefighters, had restrictions on their union rights, such as the inability to strike, so that teachers, nurses, and social workers, should not think of themselves as exempt from state restrictions on their bargaining rights. "All the animals in the barnyard need to be equal," Schultz said.

Though the audience was respectful of Schultz and his Animal Farm analogy, hardly any one seemed convinced of his solution.

After the town hall ended, Schultz took questions for another hour from about 30 different constituents.

"He speaks a good game and I admire him for pushing back against his party," said Judith Boe, a former teacher at Pineview who taught music for 35 years before recently retiring. "But I don't think he can be effective unless he joins the 14 Democrats" who have fled the state in order to stall passage of the governor's bill. Boe believes, as many others I spoke with at the town hall do, that the 14 Democratic senators will not compromise on the collective bargaining issue because and if they do, they will also be voted out of office.

"The only glimmer of hope I see in this situation, which I often find very hopeless, is that this governor has revived a spark in our unions and the Democratic Party I haven't seen for years," Boe said.

By nightfall, however, that glimmer seemed to dim when the Wall Street Journal ran a quote by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald saying that the bill would have to pass as is. "The collective bargaining piece has to pass. If it doesn't the governor's budget doesn't work," he said.* Democrats were ready to accept that and allow the bill to go through in hopes of a backlash against the GOP, the paper reported.

But Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson told The Atlantic, from his undisclosed location in Illinois, that the 14 would not accept a bill that stripped public employees of their right to collectively bargain.

"The Wall Street Journal did some intellectual hop scotch," Larson said. "We think the wind is at our backs now, so instead of being largely ignored by senate Republicans, Governor Walker and his legislation have become so radioactive that we think Republicans could be more open to negotiations this week."

Meaning, the Democrats could be able to get a bill that would protect collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Larson also said he didn't believe Schultz's proposed amendment to freeze collective bargaining for two years was an acceptable compromise. "An amendment isn't going to fix it." Larson said. According to Larson, Walker's bill revises close to two hundred laws. "This is a Trojan Horse of bad stuff. Any one who votes yes on this bill is essentially saying that they are done with public service because they'll be voted out."

This was the same sentiment expressed over and over in Reedsburg.

After Schultz ended his comments, a man of about 60 approached the microphone and said, without rancor, that before he came to this meeting he considered himself an independent voter.

"After hearing you speak," he said to Schultz, "I've decided to become a Democrat."

Image credit: Natasha Vargas-Cooper

* This item originally attributed Fitzgerald's quote to Miller. We regret the error.