After rewarding his corporate supporters with a $117 million tax break, Wisconsin's newly-elected Tea Party Governor, Scott Walker, manufactured a $137 million budget shortfall in order to go after public employees, including their basic civil right to form a union and bargain collectively. As Stanley Kutler reports on Truthdig.org, prior to Walker's huge tax giveaway to corporations, Wisconsin's non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau predicted a budget surplus of $67 million for 2011.
Despite this glaring fact, many of the public employee unions and their Democratic allies in the Wisconsin state legislature told Walker and the Republicans they would agree to wage freezes and benefit cuts to help contribute to balancing the budget, if they in turn would agree to drop their demand to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state and municipal employees.
Since that appeal for negotiation and compromise, Walker has stubbornly refused to reciprocate. On MSNBC's The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell in late February, one Republican legislator, when asked by a Democratic colleague about this attempt to come to an agreement, sheepishly said, "I'm not empowered to negotiate," while refusing to say whether there was a chance he might change his vote on the bill.
Walker's last stand isn't about balancing Wisconsin's budget. It's really about attacking unionized teachers, sanitation workers, janitors, nurses, police, firefighters, and other public employees who collectively bargain and denying them the right to make their voices heard in the workplace.
Indeed, Walker has gone out of his way to blast Wisconsin's state, county and municipal employees who provide the people of Wisconsin vital public services such as rescuing and caring for the sick and injured, putting out fires, plowing the roads, hauling the garbage, driving the buses, and teaching our children. Last November, then governor-elect Walker claimed that public employees were "the haves" while taxpayers were the "have-nots," thus implying that public employees earn vastly higher amounts than comparable workers in the private sector. Walker made this comment at the Republican Governors' Association annual conference, a gathering backed by millions of dollars from corporate donors such as the now infamous Koch brothers, in what amounted to a Republican hate-fest against public employees and labor unions. As the LA Times reported, Walker's comments were made in conjunction with other right-wing celebrities like former Minnesota Republican governor and presidential aspirant, Tim Pawlenty, who described public employees as likely "to stick a shiv in us," while Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said he hears little more than "crap" from public employees in his state.
Walker is ignoring the facts to claim that public employees earn too much and are therefore the cause of the budget shortfall, since new data on the pay and benefits of Wisconsin's public employees shows they are compensated about four percent less than comparably educated private sector workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
A basic democratic right, the right to organize a union and bargain collectively is what is at stake in the Battle of Wisconsin. It is at stake in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and New Jersey, where extremist Republican governors are pushing similar Koch Brother-funded schemes to strip first public employees, then also private sector workers of their right to bargain collectively about working conditions, health care, pensions, and wages. Public employees in Wisconsin have already agreed to take a 12 percent cut in wages and contribute more toward their health insurance premiums, but they firmly refuse to give up the basic right to organize and bargain collectively, a last minute budget provision Gov. Walker pulled out of thin air at the urging of the Koch Brothers and other corporate backers. (For Walker's role as a Tea Party-inspired union buster, listen to his lengthy telephone conversation with the fake "brother Dave Koch.")
What is at stake in Wisconsin is a basic question of democracy. All workers should have a say in their workplace, and all workers should have the legal right to organize a union.
This is, in fact, a civil rights issue that goes beyond just dollars and cents to the very heart of the democratic process. Walker and his Republican allies want to eliminate the voice with legal and organizational clout that US workers have in the workplace. So far the governor and his Republican allies (the beneficiaries of tons of anonymous corporate cash following the corporation = person "free-speech" ruling by the Supreme Court in "Citizens" United case) have been unable to demonstrate the dollar-saving effect on the current budget "crisis"of union-busting and the stripping away of collective bargaining rights.
Since Walker one Monday a few short weeks ago introduced his nearly 200-page budget (with the stripping of bargaining rights buried deep within it) and tried to ram it through the following day, 14 courageous Democratic senators have fled the chamber and the state of Wisconsin in protest, while the state capitol and legislative chambers have been rocked by popular protests against the Governor's bullying tactics and budgetary deceit. But the governor stubbornly refuses any dialogue with either the Democratic lawmakers or the public employee unions. It's all about increasing power, more power for the corporations, more power to break the labor movement, and more power to bully a low-wage, non-union workforce with impunity. There has also, not surprisingly, been no dialogue with the people of Wisconsin about the Governor's massive tax giveaways to the state's biggest corporations.
The bottom line in Wisconsin is this: to claim the right to silence public employees is to claim the right to deny the taxpaying citizens of Wisconsin a voice in how their government is run. By denying workers the right to bargain collectively, Governor Walker is denying them any say in the conditions in which they work to provide the people of Wisconsin with the vital public services they need, as well any say about their healthcare benefits, pensions and wages. It is important to note that in contract negotiations public employee unions across the country have agreed time and again to trade lower wages for good healthcare coverage and decent pensions.
Walker counted on massive corporate support for his union-busting actions. He also counted on support from the Tea Party (itself lavishly bankrolled and manipulated by the Koch Brothers) and the entire leadership of the Republican Party. And he got it.
What he didn't count on was the swift, dynamic and inspiring opposition to his plans. Public workers – from teachers to cops to firefighters – have joined the protests in Madison, where the crowds have grown larger with each passing day. University students and public school students joined the protests too, along with NFL stars and civil rights and community leaders. Even some veterans of the people's revolt in Egypt have been spotted in the crowd.
The scope of the reaction to Walker's anti-working families law has been so broad that similar protests have quickly spread to other states. In Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, Republican governors with legislative majorities plan to force working families to pay for budget shortfalls (essentially the result of Wall Street crime, the economic debacle it caused, and corporate tax-dodging), while attempting to eliminate workers' rights to form unions and collectively bargain.
Walker, to the amusement of many, even trotted out the old corporate line that the protesters were "outside agitators" stirring up trouble in Wisconsin's normally peaceful communities. Despite that laughable remark, recent polling from USA Today/Gallup indicates that six in 10 Wisconsin residents oppose Walkers' bill.
The labor movement, in a broad alliance with the progressive grassroots, is now proving itself to be the anti-Tea Party, re-invigorating the democratic forces that brought Barack Obama into office by its principled stand in defense of the democratic rights of Wisconsin's public sector employees.
The courage shown by working people and their unions in Wisconsin (and other states where workers face Republican attacks) is actually about much more than stopping anti-working families bills from becoming law. In his rousing speech to protesters on the steps of the capitol building in Madison, Jesse Jackson called the protests "the Superbowl of workers' rights."
"When we fight, we win," said Jackson.
The stand taken by labor and its supporters in Wisconsin is also about energizing and uniting a movement to take back the country from the Republicans and the Tea Party. "This is the first round in the battle," said Reverend Jackson, "to recapture the integrity of our nation, as we fight for the rights of working people. "This is a fight to rebuild the country from the bottom up," he continued. "We seek to restructure our economy, not just refortify it."
"We've seen in the last few years greed unleashed on our society," said Jackson, "and a huge collapse of our banking industry, driven by greed without oversight," citing the constantly revolving door that connects Wall Street to Washington by means of a reliable network of ex-politicians turned lobbyists. "Those who oversaw it were as guilty as those who were greedy," he said.
Most importantly, the stand in Madison, Wisconsin is energizing a national movement to fend off Republican attacks on working families and turn the country in a new direction – toward increased political power and democracy for America's working families and a long overdue increase in the amount of tax dollars big corporations and the wealthiest two percent contribute to the public treasury.
Photo by PeoplesWorld.org