Over and over again last night, speakers told protestors the rally that brought 40,000 protestors from all over the state was "not about money."
"This is about our collective bargaining rights," said WEAC leader Mary Bell.
Today, Bell and Marty Beil, the head of AFSCME Council 24, the second largest union in the state, put their money where their mouths are. They OKed Walker's proposals to increase state workers contributions to their health care and pension plans.
In a sense, their public concession vindicates Democrats, who have claimed all week that the way to cut costs was to negotiate with unions, rather than bully them.
"It's really easy [to cut spending]. You pick up the phone and call up the public employee union to say 'let's sit down and negotiate,'" said Rep. Mark Pocan in an interview on Tuesday.
Ironically, Walker got the concessions from the unions without ever picking up the phone. It begs the question: Could the threat of union-busting be a ruse to extract the most painful pay cuts from public employees in recent memory?
That was what some suggested the plan was back when Walker began to float the idea of stripping public sector unions of collective bargaining rights in December: Threaten the unions with radical action, and then settle for drastic cuts as they scramble to maintain their existence.
Hence the education reform plan put forward by WEAC last week, in which the teacher's union proposed implementing changes loathe to its union leadership, including merit pay, in an effort to show Walker he didn't need to get rid of them to get his way on almost everything.
But Walker went ahead with the most radical plan possible. And why not? His GOP majorities should have assured him victory, and who cares about unions anymore, he must have reasoned. Less than a fifth of Wisconsin's workers belong to them, and most of those are in the public sector, meaning their suffering could be framed as a victory for everybody else.
Without a doubt the response has been much stronger than any Republican could have imagined. They expected some protests, maybe even some work-stoppages. But not four days of round-the-clock Capitol occupation. Not the front page of the New York Times, day after day. Not a revolution!
Will Walker compromise? Not publicly, I don't think. His entire career he's played to his base, and he's going to rely on the same strategy now. He's going to count on the public opinion shifting against the Democratic senators who fled to Illinois. Walker's got plenty of time he can wait it out.
The key is for the pressure to mount on a few Republican senators. Especially the ones running for re-election next year.
Sen. Dale Schultz refuses to say whether he'll vote for Walker's bill, but that in itself is an indication that he's looking for an opportunity to vote against it. Yesterday in the Senate chamber he looked like a rogue senator, wearing a fleece instead of a suit. (I had to point it out.)
Can Schultz get two more senators to take collective bargaining rights off the table?
It probably won't be Cowles, who told me he "had no idea" why he was considered a swing vote on the bill. Van Wanggaard, who has been a union negotiator for cops, also appears interested in an alternative, although the alternative he proposed with Schultz will definitely not be accepted by Democrats. There just needs to be one more.
Sheila Harsdorf, Randy Hopper and Dan Kapanke are all up for re-election next year. If the unions have a chance, it is probably found with one of them.