Wisconsin’s civil service system, implemented over a century ago under governor Bob LaFollette, was one of the first attempts in the United States to end the practice of political patronage—giving government jobs to political supporters. LaFollette and other reformers felt that rather than hiring based on cronyism and corruption, the law should ensure hiring based on merit, so that “the best shall serve the state.” So when Wisconsin Republicans introduced legislation to remove key components of the civil service system, members of AFT-Wisconsin state employee unions quickly mobilized alongside other supporters of clean government, forming the Wisconsin Coalition to Save Civil Service. Alongside their AFSCME union sisters and brothers, AFT-Wisconsin activists organized building meetings to spread the word about the importance of civil service to clean government and effective state agencies.
These efforts culminated in a high-profile teach-in at the state capitol on January 12, which featured Ruth Conniff, editor-in-chief of The Progressive magazine; Mike McCabe, president of Blue Jean Nation; Paul Spink, AFSCME Council 32 president; and Kevin Gundlach, president of the South Central Federation of Labor. In front of a packed hearing room, speakers discussed the history of Wisconsin civil service—how it was designed to address political corruption in state hiring, and how it has helped bring in highly qualified state employees for decades—and the dangers of returning to cronyism.
Despite these efforts, Governor Walker signed the bill on February 11. Barb Smith, a founding member of the coalition and of AFT-Wisconsin local 4848, the Wisconsin Professional Employees Council, expressed both disappointment and optimism upon the bill’s signing. “Although I’m saddened by this bill becoming law, I’m encouraged by the groundswell of support for clean government from the citizens of Wisconsin, and from my fellow state employees. As public servants, AFT-Wisconsin members and our union sisters and brothers remain committed to providing high quality services to the people of Wisconsin free from political interference.”