When we see union members picketing the Wisconsin legislature, it’s natural to dust off the vocabulary we've developed watching the private sector labor movement. In this conceptual universe, union power emanates outward from the shop floor. Historically, it originated in physical force—think of sit down strikes in the 1930s that enabled the United Auto Workers to organize the auto industry by taking physical possession of the factory floor. The class struggle was soon domesticated under a legal regime that recognized the right of workers to organize and exercise control over the terms and conditions of employment by threatening to shut an industrial enterprise down through a legal strike.
Strikes happen in this world because the parties occasionally have to make their threats to shut the workplace down or, run it with non-union labor, credible. When they do occur, they’re decided by the parties’ relative capacity to endure pain, for the employer in the form of forgone revenue and for the unionized employees in the form of forgone wages. Although strikes can escalate into existential struggles, they usually end when the parties split the difference in some mutually endurable settlement. That, in any case, is how things used to work in private sector labor relations and in those jurisdictions in which public employees may strike. Our vocabulary hasn't caught up with the fact that, sadly, the world it describes is disappearing before our eyes along with middle-class trade unionists. All those people singing "Solidarity Forever" can't conceal the fact that what's happening in Madison is mostly political gamesmanship pretending to the dignity of an industrial action.
When we talk about what’s happening in Wisconsin in terms we developed to understand the class struggle, we’re speaking metaphorically and the metaphor we’re using is a stretch. Although the picketers are pretending otherwise, the parties whose conflicting interests provoked the contest, unionized public employees on one side and taxpayers on the other, aren’t really players in the game that's being played. The contested terrain isn’t where unionized public employees (besides the few who tend to the Wisconsin Capitol) work, it’s the chamber where the Senate does its legislative business. And the strikers aren’t the people whose wages, benefits and collective bargaining rights hang in the balance. They’re a bunch of Democratic politicians camping out in Illinois to keep the Wisconsin Senate from achieving a quorum. The strikers may have succeeded, for the time being, in shutting their workplace down, but they have a professional interest in the public employees’ and taxpayers' pain only insofar as it translates into votes in the next election. Public sector unionists are playing the role, not of a character in the drama, but of a self-appointed Greek chorus purporting to give voice to the moral sense of a community that gave Republicans control of all branches of Wisconsin state government in the last election.
So where does it all end? The answer is only remotely connected to the pain being experienced by public employees or taxpayers. Scott Walker and the Republicans seem to have decided that, not only do they believe in their position on the merits, but they'd be shooting themselves in the foot politically by retracting it now. And the Democratic Senators will come back when they’ve decided that there’s no more political advantage to squeeze out of the situation. And if you believe the Wall Street Journal, they’re on the verge of deciding that, as gratifying as the polling results have been so far, they’re only going to get worse if they close down the Senate much longer, even if that means allowing Walker's budget to come up for a vote:
“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. . . .At bottom, this is a fight between Republicans and the Democrats about the next election. Wisconsin public employee unions and taxpayers are mostly along for the ride.
"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. . . . ‘I think we have to realize that there's only so much we can do as a group to make a stand,’ Mr. Jauch said. ‘It's really up to the public to be engaged in carrying the torch on this issue.’"