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Want a Real Battle Between Politicians and Unions? Welcome to Wisconsin

As politicians and unions quietly shadowbox in Chicago and Illinois, a real throwdown is shaping up across the border. The fallout could shape politics in our state and across the country.

A couple weeks ago Rahm Emanuel touched off a little spat with local unions by running an ad that I thought was pretty opaque in its messaging, or at least just as likely to be about patronage hiring as union strength. Perhaps it became an issue because no candidates who aren’t Carol Moseley Braun have said anything controversial—not only has this been a race without race, it’s been one without much color. Even the Rahm Tax, if you look at the numbers, doesn’t seem to be that big a burden, essentially my ability to save a couple tanks of gas in taxes for your willingness to pay more to get your car handwashed. Not really the sort of political rhetoric that gives the Windy City its name.

Anyway, the unions’ lukewarm fight with Emanuel was thrown into stark relief by the labor news from our neighbors to the north. New Republican governor Scott Walker is threatening to strip the collective bargaining rights of all but a handful of unions—for instance, removing the right of union members to negotiate for benefits. The Awl has a good rundown of the details. A lot of attention has been given to Walker’s announcement that the National Guard is being prepped, but I take this simply to mean that they would take over some state necessities in the case of strike, like guarding prisons, not that armored personnel carriers would take the place of buses or that drill sergeants would take over drivers’ testing (come to think of it, that’s not a half bad idea).

Wisconsin, like Illinois, is facing massive budget shortfalls, and collective bargaining isn’t Walker’s only target; his budget proposal also looks to give his administration (and the Republican-majority legislature’s budget committee) more direct control over the state’s health care services.

Some workers have said that Walker could get his wage and benefit demands via negotiation instead of eliminating it; there have been scattered protests with more to come. As Chicago and Illinois work around the edges, Wisconsin is, for better or worse, taking big (and arguably draconian) measures to address similar issues. What works and what doesn’t might have long-term impact on Illinois residents, if voters and legislators are paying attention.

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