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‘Scars are still there’: Act 10 left its impact on Wisconsin

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File photo by Dan Plutchak/WKOW
Protesters surrounded the state Capitol on Madison in 2011 following the passage of Act 10, which in effect eliminated most public unions in Wisconsin.

MADISON (WKOW) -- 10 years ago, a new governor's plan to balance the budget triggered an unforgettable moment in Wisconsin's political history.

Tens of thousands rallied at the state Capitol as former Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill, known as Act 10, was first introduced in legislative committees on Feb. 14, 2011.

"It was kind of amazing to look around and see how many people that did impact and who were willing to say we don't want this," said Mary Scott, a retired Stoughton teacher.

Scott and her husband Tom joined the rallies, fight for their rights threatened by the changes in the proposal.

Among other measures, Act 10 ended collective bargaining laws for some public employees and required state and local workers to pay part of their retirement pensions and health insurance plans.

Those measures triggered immediate outrage from public workers and led to one of the largest protest responses in Wisconsin history.

"I looked at the first night I was up there and I thought, I will probably never experience something like this again in my life, this amount of unity, all the different unions coming in," said Tom Scott, a retired Madison College instructor.

As tension grew on the Assembly and Senate floors, police counted 1.5 million people came through the Capitol when the protests developed in the next month.

Democratic state senators, including retired Sen. Fred Risser, even left the state to try to stop a vote.

"All we were trying to do is to draw attention to what was going on and by not having a quorum at least slow things down. And I think it had an effect," Risser said.

That effort failed though and the bill eventually became law when Gov. Walker signed it on March 11.

"I expected some pushback," Walker said, reflecting on the past decade in an interview with 27 News. "I knew these were pretty bold policies we were promoting, not just for Wisconsin but across the country, but I had no idea how big they would be."

Walker and legislative Republicans got to work as soon as he took office to address an immediate nearly $140 million budget gap, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Officials say that was projected to grow to more than $3 billion in the coming years.

In addition to the pension and health care contributions, the budget also restructured the state's debt, increased funding for medical assistance benefits and the state Department of Corrections and made changes to the medical assistance program.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos determined the biggest cost savings would come from personnel.

"I knew there would be people who were frustrated and angry but I think it's only because they had gotten such a lucrative deal for so long, they really kind of grew accustomed to paying nothing for most of their benefits," he said, looking back on the decisions made a decade ago.

Act 10's impact in Wisconsin


Walker believes this law that became his legacy helped change the state for the better.

"[Act 10] really took the power out of the hands of the few, typically the big government union bosses, particularly at the local -- the county the school district and municipal level -- were overwhelmingly driving the agenda," he said.

It's the changes to union powers that hit hardest in the community, driving an immediate push to recall Walker. He and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch won that fight in 2012.

"The governor and I both survived recall election. I became the first lieutenant governor in American history to face a recall election and then win," she said. "The fight, I believe, strengthened us as a state, not just as people or leaders but as a state. And I think after that, we began to actually pull in the same direction."

But 10 years later, the memories of what was lost are still painful for many.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, who was a Democratic state representative at the time Act 10 was introduced, says public employees have paid the price in the past decade.

"I think it's pretty clear that Act 10 has had a very negative impact on the state. Tens of thousands of people's earning power has been decreased, people's wages were lowered, their benefits took a hit, their voice in their workplace has been restricted. And that doesn't only impact the workers that impacts our state as a whole," he said.

Parisi says schools have trouble attracting and retaining teachers, which the Scotts have seen first-hand.

"I think after this happened, they experienced one of the highest numbers of retirements at the college after this had gone through, while it was going through and then after it had gone through. So quite a few people had left," Tom said.

Since Act 10 took effect in June 2011, the couple has faced bigger bills with no additional compensation, retirement pay and wages dropped off, their unions lost power and seniority went away.

"Those scars are still there, that's the important thing that people realize. Yes, teachers go in the classroom, do their work every day. They did it back then, they're doing it now, but at the end of the day it hurt the teaching profession," said Gov. Tony Evers.

Future of the law

Evers, who was state superintendent of public instruction when Act 10 passed, has said he opposes the measures, but doesn't expect he'll be proposing any big changes any time soon.

"I just think that was a horrible mistake on their part. Would I like to change it, yes, I would, but it is what it is at this point in time," he told 27 News, a week before he plans to introduce his next state budget priorities.

Meanwhile, as seen in battles over pandemic relief, the deep divide in government has only intensified a decade later, as Evers weighs the future of Act 10.

Speaker Vos says he would absolutely not consider any changes to the law.

"They've proven to work. There's no reason to go backwards. I certainly think that it's, in many ways, people have accepted it, which is why most school districts employ the tools, most local governments are already using them. And we still have really good people who work for local governments and school districts, even with the tools of Act 10, so I certainly don't see any need to go back," he said.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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