The cries of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” rang throughout the marbled walls of the Wisconsin state assembly chamber. Disgusted Democratic politicians, some of whom had been up for over 60 hours by this point, punctuated their chants by throwing papers – and even drinks – at their Republican counterparts. Police officers had to be summoned to physically restrain one Democratic representative yelling “Cowards!” across the aisle.
The source of this confrontation, in the early hours of February 2011, was an unprecedented push by Wisconsin Republicans, led by the state’s newly elected Republican governor, Scott Walker, to slash the union rights held by most public workers. Walker argued that budget woes in the state necessitated the shift, and barrelled forward to eliminate the rights of virtually all public-sector workers to collectively bargain with government and to allow government employees to opt out of paying dues to their unions.
At first blush this might seem like a years-old local issue in a US state that rarely lights up the international headlines. Yet events in Wisconsin are crucial to understanding how a little-known, billionaire-funded organization, called Americans for Prosperity (AFP), has tilted American politics to the right. It is intertwined with, and rivals in size, the Republican party itself.
Where did Walker’s ultra-conservative labor agenda come from? As a candidate, Walker barely mentioned collective bargaining or union busting. And we know this plan did not come from voters. Before the legislation popped up on the agenda, Wisconsinites generally supported collective bargaining. Nationally, only about 40% of American adults favor curbs to public sector bargaining rights, and in Wisconsin, this minority level of support was about the same.
Instead, to understand what happened in Wisconsin – and what is happening in states across the country – we need to look to the underappreciated organization that is at the center of the political network created and directed by the billionaire conservative industrialists, Charles and David Koch. [Continue reading…]