Triumph of the Koch Brothers
An award-winning documentary and a new book both describe how public unions were crushed in Wisconsin.
As the dust settles on the epic battles over union rights for public workers in Wisconsin, two new major works aim to put these events into perspective.
The first is “Citizen Koch,” a documentary by award-winning filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin. It aired at the Sundance Film Festival in January and the Wisconsin Film Festival this month.
The second is “More Than They Bargained For,” a book by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, published by the University of Wisconsin Press.
Both recount how newly elected Gov. Scott Walker in February 2011 “dropped the bomb” (his words) regarding his plan to largely end the collective bargaining rights of most state and local public employees.
“Citizen Koch” frames these events as part of a national conservative agenda pushed by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch, founders and funders of the “grassroots” advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.
The film notes that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision enabled the Koch brothers (estimated combined worth: $68 billion) and others to spend unlimited sums on political campaigns. They then set out to help elect politicians like Walker and, later, help him withstand a recall attempt.
Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips (annual compensation: more than $300,000) is shown disparaging “pampered” public employee unions. The film’s gasp-inducing final shot shows another AFP official calling the group “just like the Red Cross, just like any other nonprofit.” (Group spokesman Levi Russell did not respond to inquiries about the film.)
“Citizen Koch” gives ample airtime to fans of the court’s ruling in Citizens United, and to Walker’s Tea Party backers. But its heart is with the opposition, and it presents what happened in Wisconsin as the product of nefarious design.
In contrast, “More Than They Bargained For” makes the events in Wisconsin seem messier, less deliberate, at times even slapdash. The book’s title reflects its theme that nobody, least of all Scott Walker, anticipated the massive blowback he would unleash.
Stein and Marley, veteran reporters with enviable access, have penned the definitive journalistic account of the Wisconsin uprising, especially as it played out in the state Legislature. They make it a story about individuals, not titanic forces.
And yet the book largely substantiates the claims made in “Citizen Koch” about the Wisconsin drama’s larger ideological context.
Both sides realized, Stein and Marley write, that “if Walker could defeat public employees” in Wisconsin, with its deep union roots, “that would spell further decline for labor throughout the nation.” Indeed, they say, “the protests helped confirm they were close to achieving something of great moment that was worthy of the national attention they were receiving.”
The protests also helped Walker mobilize national support — and big money. In the end, his side raised nearly three times as much as proponents of the recall, $59 million to $22 million. And nearly two-thirds of Walker’s war chest came from donors in other states.
“More Than They Bargained For” is an ambitious and largely successful attempt, as reviewer John Nichols put it, “to establish a record that is accepted – if not entirely embraced – by all sides in an ongoing dispute that has no middle.”
“Citizen Koch,” meanwhile, unabashedly chooses sides. The film’s website has a Take Action page where visitors can join efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United.
But neither treatment captures the enormity of emotion underlying these events — the deep-rooted and corrosive feelings of betrayal, or resentment, held by individual state residents. No one book or movie could do that. This slice of state history has as many versions as it does people who lived through it.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.