THE BLOG
03/08/2011 04:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Wisconsin 14 May Be Weakening, Struggle to Regain Leverage

There are conflicting reports today about the intentions of the "Wisconsin 14," the fourteen Democratic members of the Wisconsin state senate who have fled the state to prevent Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP majority from enacting sweeping anti-union legislation.

Most media outlets this week are reporting on letter that Minority Leader Mark Miller had hand-delivered to Gov. Walker Monday, asking for a meeting to negotiate a compromise:

Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona) said in a letter sent out Monday that he wants to meet with Republicans "near the Wisconsin-Illinois border to formally resume serious discussions" on Walker's budget repair bill.

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"I assure you that Democratic state senators, despite our differences and the vigorous debate we have had, remain ready and willing to find a reasonable compromise," Miller said in the letter.

However, the Wall Street Journal is reporting a very different story. In a piece datelined today (March 7) but released online yesterday, March 6, the WSJ quotes Miller and another Democratic senator, Bob Jauch, as saying that some or all of the Democratic senators are planning to return with or without a deal on the main issues, even though doing so will allow the union-busting bill to pass:

Sen. Mark Miller said he and his fellow Democrats intend to let the full Senate vote on Gov. Scott Walker's "budget-repair" bill, which includes the proposed limits on public unions' collective bargaining rights.

The bill, which had been blocked because the missing Democrats were needed for the Senate to have enough members present to consider the bill, is expected to pass the Republican-controlled chamber. He said he thinks recent polls showing voter discontent with Mr. Walker over limits on bargaining rights have been "disastrous" for the governor and give Democrats more leverage to seek changes in a broader two-year budget bill Mr. Walker proposed Tuesday.

Both stories seem to contain an element of truth -- and if both are true, it spells a bleak picture for pro-union forces elsewhere in the country, where the GOP is mounting similar attacks and where the battle in Wisconsin is seen as a bellwether.

There are several reasons to believe the WSJ story contains some truth, despite Democratic spokespeople's quick denials Monday. First, even the WSJ story has Miller placing some conditions on the Democrats' return; his letter today asking for a meeting is not inconsistent with a desire to negotiate those other conditions -- effectively, to negotiate honorable terms for the Democrats' surrender:

Mr. Miller declined to say how soon the Democratic senators, who left for Illinois on Feb. 17, would return. He said the group needed to address several issues first--including the resolution Senate Republicans passed last week that holds the Democrats in contempt and orders police to detain them when they return to Wisconsin.

Second, Miller's letter today seems tactical, calculated to mitigate any harm caused by the WSJ story. Its timing suggests it was written in response to the WSJ story, and although it asks the governor to negotiate, the reality is that negotiations already have been underway:

Amid the public demonstrations and Democratic walk-out, the two sides have been negotiating. Mr. Fitzgerald said the governor is negotiating through two staff members with two Democrats, Sen. Bob Jauch and Sen. Tim Cullen. And last week, Mr. Fitzgerald met ago with Mr. Jauch and another Democrat in Kenosha.

Finally, the WSJ's report that at least some Democrats intend to return (even one returning would restore a quorum and ensure the bill's passage), and the subsequent denials of any such intention, come from different sources. The WSJ's Sunday piece is based on comments made by Miller and Jauch; on Monday, Miller himself "could [not] be reached for further comment," and it is other people who issue today's denials:

Miller spokesman Mike Browne said Monday morning that he knew of no plans for Democrats to return later in the day. The senators were scheduled to meet later in the morning or early afternoon, he said.

One of the Democratic senators, Tim Cullen of Janesville, said in a phone interview Sunday that there were no developments toward a possible compromise with Republicans and no talks scheduled for this week.

Two other Democratic senators -- Jon Erpenbach of Middleton and Chris Larson of Milwaukee -- said Sunday their group had no plans to come back to the Capitol until Republicans addressed more of their concerns with the budget-repair bill. "I can tell you for a fact that nothing has changed down here," Erpenbach said.

The most likely explanation for the above is that at least some of the Wisconsin 14 are (justifiably) tired and discouraged; that there is a consensus among at least some of them that returning could be politically advantageous in the long run; that Miller and Jauch admitted as much to the WSJ; and that they or others in the caucus realized belatedly that their remarks undercut the Democrats' negotiating position and that they now are scrambling to regain some of the advantage they needlessly gave away Sunday by issuing denials of any intent to return without a deal.

Analysis:

Whatever face they put on it publicly, it would be unwise and naive for those who support the labor movement in Wisconsin and nationally to pretend to themselves that the Wisconsin 14 are holding firm. Instead, labor advocates around the country need to accept that the 14 may be bending to the incredible pressure they're under, and look for ways to help them remain firm.

There is nothing nefarious about the 14 wanting to return. For underpaid state legislators who normally hold down other jobs to make ends meet, this stalemate may be financially disastrous; for the one who is seven months pregnant, and possibly for others, it is medically challenging; for all of them it is personally disruptive. Nor is it politically unsavvy for them to calculate that allowing the largely-reviled anti-union bill to pass might ultimately benefit Wisconsin Democrats at the polls -- that they can surrender and live to fight another day.

But from a negotiating perspective, nothing could be worse than for one party to disclose that it is willing to surrender the primary issue in dispute; little wonder that Gov. Walker, on Monday, immediately rejected the possibility of further talks. Miller's and Jauch's comments to the WSJ have given new strength to the formerly-embattled Walker, and make any compromise unlikely.

More significantly, the political calculus articulated by Walker and Jauch -- that allowing the anti-union bill to pass will benefit Wisconsin Democrats -- doesn't take into account the impact that such a surrender will have on pro-union advocates in other states. The GOP is mounting, or planning to mount, similar efforts to break public-employee unions in other states, especially Ohio. Wisconsin, where workers' rights were first established in America a century ago, is the beachhead; if defenders there fall, the anti-union momentum will only grow. And, as Rachel Maddow and others have explained, the Democratic Party's hopes largely hinge on the success of unions, which (post-Citizens United) are the last significant institutional sources of campaign contributions to Democratic political candidates.

The Wisconsin 14 have acted courageously and sacrificially. They cannot hold out forever; it may even be time for them to come home. But if they fall now, then the anti-union tide will advance elsewhere. As the Wisconsin 14 make their decision, they need to consider not only their own state's politics, but also their unasked-for role as defenders of the labor union movement for the nation.

And they should not be asked to hold out by themselves. Labor's defenders in other states need to recognize that these fourteen individuals are making tangible sacrifices not for Wisconsin alone, but for the country. It's easy to ask them to keep sacrificing on Labor's behalf. The credible reports that they may soon be forced to surrender should make all labor advocates think hard about whether there is anything else they can do -- including, to the extent they can lawfully do so, monetarily -- to help the Wisconsin 14 keep holding out, if they remain willing to do so.