One hundred and fifty-eight years ago in Ripon, Wisconsin, a lawyer named Alvan Bovay and representatives of several political groups took a stand in solidarity with the Free Soil Party — the party opposed to the extension of slavery into the territories. They opposed a bill proposed by Democrat Senator Stephen Douglas known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The bill would have repealed the anti-slavery provisions of the Missouri Compromise, allowing settlers in the territories to decide for themselves whether to make slavery legal and denying non-citizen immigrants the right to vote. Bovay and the others suggested the formation of a new political party. It was July of 1854, and the Wisconsin Republican Party was born. The very next year, Wisconsin elected a Republican governor.
In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to allow collective bargaining for government employees — a development which, as time would reveal, was an extraordinarily bad idea. Unlike private sector unions which bargain collectively to ensure an equitable distribution of profits, government unions have no profits to work with. They deal only with a seemingly unlimited supply of taxpayer dollars. In a short amount of time, overly generous pay and benefits, self-serving union schemes such as the WEA Trust, and endless public sector amenities and privileges at the expense of private sector taxpayers all combined to create a perfect political storm, a tinderbox for political change. A young politician named Scott Walker would provide the spark.
It took a great recession to expose the billions in debt and deficit resulting from the self-gorging and non-stop growth of pay, benefits, and pensions for public sector employees. In February of 2011, newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker sparked a national uproar over the excesses and political bullying of organized labor, calling for public employees — especially teachers — to pay a tiny bit more for their pension and health care costs, and proposing reasonable limits to previously abused public employee collective bargaining rights. He proposed taking the state out of the business of collecting union dues and asked public employees to accept a pay, pension, and benefits package that 95% of private sector employees would die for. Of course, the unions fought back. Political muscle was flexed and union chests were pounded. Sixty thousand union employees protested in Madison and thousands of teachers called in sick, taking many of their students with them. Democrat state senators shirked their responsibilities and fled the state to avoid a vote on Walker’s proposals as President Barack Obama accused Walker of launching an “assault on unions.”