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Wisconsin: the Coalmine’s Canary?

Like many others, this author followed the amazing actions in Madison, Wisconsin, this past February with both shock and pride.  Shock at the actions of a Governor and state Legislature who decided it was within their right to roll back 50 years of collective bargaining rights, rights which, to union workers and Americans who believe in the general freedom of citizens to assemble and negotiate their own working conditions, are as important as the freedom to speak freely or carry a firearm.  Pride at the public workers who, in the face of daunting odds, police lockouts, and vile attacks from all quarters (“public workers are lazy, only care about themselves and their pension,” etc., etc., etc.).  For weeks on end, public workers and their private sector brothers and sisters stood vigil at the State House in Madison, and were there to point the spotlight at Scott Walker and his Republican counterparts.  And when Gov. Walker finally signed the rights-stripping-bill into law, public workers chose not to throw in the towel, sulk, or surrender.  Instead, they went to work, doing what public workers do: organizing, rallying support to their cause, collecting signatures, explaining to potential voters the detrimental effects of the law…  You know, taking part in democracy.  After only a few weeks, voters in Wisconsin had collected enough signatures to trigger recall elections in seven Wisconsin Senate districts.  Today, those elections will take place.

On Tuesday, August 9, Wisconsin voters go to the polls to signal their (dis)approval of six Republican state Senators who supported Gov. Walker’s rights-stripping bill.  According to the New York times, with over $30 million spent by candidates, local organizations, and outside groups, these are some of the most expensive local elections of all time.

So, what will be the outcome of today’s elections?  We’ll know in a few hours.  Either way, it is clear that Wisconsin is a bit of a “canary in a coalmine” for the rest of the country: if Democrats win the three seats they need to take back control of the Wisconsin Senate, recall campaigns may begin to pop up all over the country, in states like Ohio, Indiana, and Maine, where similar Republican-controlled legislatures have proposed similar rights-stripping measures and other extreme legislation.  Alternately, it may also trigger much more “Citizens United”-style spending by outside groups and corporations who support these types of laws they believe are good for austerity and long-term fiscal health (the theory goes that collective bargaining rights = negotiations over working conditions = things like health care, insurance, pensions, etc. = bloated government funded at taxpayer’s expense).

If Democrats do not win the number of seats they need, and the outside money that was pumped into Wisconsin by multi-million dollar organizations as part of an archaic system that still believes money equals speech and that those who can afford it should have an unfair ability to influence elections with their cash over those who are merely average citizens without bottomless pockets proves to have been money well-spent, then watch for Republican-controlled State Houses and Governor’s Mansions around the country to push full-throttle on more union-stripping, pension-stripping, voting rights-revoking measures from the east coast to the west.

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