MADISON – Act 10, the Scott Walker-era law that sparked massive protests at the state Capitol, is turning 10. Here’s a look at how the law limiting collective bargaining for most public workers has played out.
Act 10 delivered a blow to unions
The measure cut public workers’ paychecks and siphoned off most of the strength of their unions.
Public workers earning $50,000 a year saw their take-home pay shrink by about 8.5% because they had to pay more for their benefits, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau at the time.
Act 10 ended the ability of public-sector unions to negotiate over any issues other than raises, and those raises were capped at the rate of inflation. In addition, unions were required to hold annual elections to maintain their ability to negotiate for those raises. For those elections, they must win a majority of all eligible members, not just those who cast votes.
Four years after Act 10 passed, Republicans approved a right-to-work law that limited the power of private-sector unions. Between 2010 and 2019, Wisconsin lost about 137,000 union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Union members in 2010 made up more than 14% of Wisconsin’s workforce but by 2019 their share fell to about 8%.
Passing Act 10 wasn’t easy
Now part of Republican orthodoxy, Act 10 wasn’t guaranteed to pass when it was first unveiled. Former Gov. Scott Walker, who was the architect of the plan, noted some lawmakers were more willing to embrace it than others.
“When I went in (the Assembly Republican caucus) and told them what we were going to do, it was like a scene out of ‘Braveheart.’ They wanted to lift me up on their shoulders and go out to battle,” Walker said in a recent interview. “When I went to the Senate caucus … it was like I had told them their puppy had died. A number of them were not keen on making that kind of dramatic change.”
Before Republican senators could settle on what to do, their Democratic colleagues left the state. That stymied the Senate because the state constitution requires 20 senators to be present to consider certain types of legislation and the Republicans had 19 seats.
In the midst of it all, massive protests sprung up, with Act 10’s opponents occupying the Capitol through the night for long stretches. With the Senate sidelined, the Assembly debated the measure for 61 hours.
Democrats and Republicans alike said they weren’t sure what would happen during that period. Attempts at compromise failed and after three weeks Senate Republicans modified the legislation so they could pass it without any Democrats having to be there.
Walker signed Act 10 on March 11, 2011.
Wisconsin’s divisions in 2011 signaled where America was headed
Act 10 divided Wisconsin — much as America is divided today.
The dispute over the law drove wedges between friends and disrupted family gatherings. Bartenders told their patrons to steer away from political talk.
Before long, the rest of the country was in a similar place, with Americans tuning into news feeds and internet communities that echo only what they want to hear.
Act 10 bolstered some political careers and ended others
Act 10 launched an unusual wave of recall elections. Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall challenge. Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch became the first lieutenant governor to face one, as well as the first to survive one.
Thirteen state senators faced recalls over Act 10 — 10 Republicans and three Democrats. Most incumbents won, but Democrats managed to unseat three Republicans. That was enough to give them control of the Senate in the summer of 2012, but the victory came when the Legislature was out of session and was short-lived. Republicans took back the majority that fall.
The attention from Act 10 made Walker a national figure, giving him a chance to launch a bid for the presidency. For weeks, he topped polls among conservatives, but he quickly abandoned his campaign after Donald Trump’s popularity among Republicans took off.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.