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In Wis., Focus Shifts From Union Law To Governor

<p>A sign that reads "recall" hangs on a statue in front of the Wisconsin state Capitol last month in Madison. Labor groups are making an effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker for his controversial union rights law.</p>
Justin Sullivan
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A sign that reads "recall" hangs on a statue in front of the Wisconsin state Capitol last month in Madison. Labor groups are making an effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker for his controversial union rights law.

A Wisconsin law on union bargaining rights signed by Gov. Scott Walker shows no signs of disappearing.

In February and March, there was a shocking, sometimes strange sight at the Wisconsin capitol: By day, protesters marched shoulder-to-shoulder. By night, they lived in the capitol, sleeping on the building's marble floors.

It began after Walker, a Republican, broke 50 years of Wisconsin precedent, announcing he would not bargain with public employee unions. He said the state was broke and he had nothing to negotiate with. The rest is the stuff of political folklore.

Fourteen Democratic state senators soon high-tailed it out of Wisconsin to prevent a vote on Walker's collective-bargaining plan. Some, like Milwaukee's Chris Larson, talked of staying away indefinitely.

"I mean it could be in the matter of hours, it could be a couple days, it could be a couple weeks," Larson said at the time.

The weeks-long standoff ended suddenly when Republicans found a procedural way out. That vote so angered protesters that they poured in by the thousands through the Capitol's doors and windows.

Walker's critics vowed revenge, much like in Ohio when Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled legislature passed an even more stringent law.

Suffice it to say, the two states have different options for venting public anger. Ohio does not have recall elections for state officials, but Wisconsin does, and both parties decided to use that option.

In August, there were an unprecedented nine state Senate recall elections. Democrats picked up two state Senate seats, but fell one short of winning the Senate majority. That left the law still standing and Republicans celebrating. Democrats were effectively powerless to change anything about the law.

This leads to another big difference between Ohio and Wisconsin. While Ohio's law remains on hold, Wisconsin's law has been in effect for months now.

Walker and his allies say the law is working, helping school districts save money and avoid layoffs and will help homeowners with lower property taxes.

Labor unions are now focusing on recalling Walker. Hundreds attended a recent rally and recall training session in Madison. Speakers included possible Democratic candidates for governor, like Jon Erpenbach, one of the 14 senators who left Wisconsin.

"What Gov. Walker has done to the state that we all love has divided us beyond belief," Erpehnbach says.

Walker's opponents will start circulating recall petitions Nov. 15, and will have 60 days to gather at least 540,000 signatures to even force an election. But even if they succeed, and Walker loses such an election, he'd be in office until at least next spring or summer. By then, the bargaining law would have been in effect for a year.

And in a twist, Democrats are also considering another round of state Senate recalls — one more sign that in Wisconsin this messy fight keeps getting even messier.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.