The Importance of Wisconsin

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is just the first Republican governor to try out a new anti-public-union game plan that has been brewing among such right-wing funders as the Koch brothers, the Club for Growth, and Karl Rove. Numerous other Republican governors, most notably John Kasich of Ohio and Chris Christie of New Jersey, seem to be looking to Wisconsin for signs of or tips on a successful strategy.

What's heartening is that, instead of slyly gutting Wisconsin's public unions, Walker is now facing tens of thousands of public workers and their supporters in the Capitol in Madison -- along with shutdown school districts; protests around the state; criticism from religious figures, Super Bowl heroes, and President Barack Obama; and editorials in national papers.

The stakes in Wisconsin could not be higher, as both the right and labor view the state as the most committed stronghold of public-sector unionism. The virtual eradication of public unions in Wisconsin would instantly trigger campaigns by Republicans in dozens of states where the public-sector labor movement is less entrenched. If successful in Wisconsin, the right's drive against union rights among public workers would mean the eventual loss of any standard for living wages, good benefits, and working conditions in which workers have a voice. It would mean the further political fragmentation of a working class already fractured by de-industrialization and the demise of cohesive working-class neighborhoods.

The evisceration of public-sector unions would also further skew the Democratic Party's appeal away from class-based issues aimed at attracting low- and moderate-income voters and instead toward professionals drawn to the Democrats primarily by social issues acceptable to the Democrats' Wall Street donors, feeding current neglect of America's banana republic-style distribution of income.

Walker had spent months on the campaign trail lashing out at public employees as a pampered caste of "haves" which enjoyed supposedly superior compensation at the expense of taxpayers. (In fact, an Economic Policy Institute study showed that college graduates in the Wisconsin public sector earned 25 percent less than those employed in the private sector.) Moreover, Walker had repeatedly sought to establish a precedent by pointing to a series of highly publicized labor showdowns where private-sector unions had been extorted -- at penalty of job relocation -- to make huge, seemingly unwarranted pay concessions to profitable companies like Mercury Marine, Harley-Davidson, and Kohler.

Against this backdrop, Walker declared that the state's budget "crisis" required legislation to impose wage and benefit cuts on public employees, estimated to be worth 6.8 percent to 11 percent of take-home pay. (Critics quickly pointed out that Walker's crisis was self-manufactured: The immediate budget shortfall was the result of Walker using up a small surplus and granting $140 million in new tax breaks favoring corporations and the wealthy.)

But far more significantly, Walker's proposed legislation would permanently strip almost all public workers of the right to genuine union representation. Unions would be able to negotiate only on wages, not benefits or working conditions; the state would no longer cooperate in collecting dues; unions could no longer assess non-members "agency fees" for the costs of representing them; contracts would be limited to one year; and, among other draconian provisions, public unions would have to be recertified every year.

By catching teacher, municipal, and state-employee unions off-guard with his surprise move, Walker hoped to smoothly push the legislation through the Republican dominated Legislature in under a week.

Instead, Walker's proposal -- accompanied by his announcement that he was ready to summon the National Guard (its possible role later limited to replacing prison guards in case of a strike) -- has triggered an explosive reaction across the state -- the first to grant, in 1959, public employees the right to organize. Across the state, about 15 school districts -- including Milwaukee's 80,000-student system -- have been shut down by teachers calling in sick. University and high school students have joined the protests. Massive protests of 30,000 to 50,000 unionists and supporters have encircled and filled the state Capitol both day and night. Hundreds of unionists have staged nightly sleep-ins inside the Capitol's ornate Rotunda, spreading their sleeping bags across the polished marble floors. Outside on Thursday night, Ed Schultz of MSNBC broadcast his populist-themed show against the backdrop of the Capitol, casting the workers' struggle as "a fight for the survival of the middle class."

This theme was constantly reiterated throughout the days of protest, and maybe this is about the survival of the middle class. "Because as we fare around wages and benefits, so do those workers who are not represented," said AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt.

The protesters seem highly aware that as private-sector unionism has been whittled away by the export of much manufacturing work and what Business Week called "one of the most successful antiunion wars ever, illegally firing thousands of workers for exercising their right to organize." In this context, the power of public-sector unions is increasingly crucial to labor -- and perhaps the most important barrier to uncontested corporate domination of the political process. Mike Imbrugno, a cook who makes $28,000 a year at UW-Madison, emphasized that public unions are a critical force to uphold living standards and a voice for workers: "[Walker's] basically trying to smash the last remaining organized upward pressure on wages and benefits in Wisconsin."

Luckily, Walker's efforts have met resistance, at least so far. When Republican legislators cut off hearings on the bill and Walker refused to contemplate the notion of any compromises, the state Senate's 14 Democrats failed to show up for the vote on Walker's bill, preventing a quorum. The 14 senators then fled to Illinois, where they were outside the jurisdiction of state troopers sent out to hunt for them. They vowed to remain in hiding until the Republicans agreed to take the anti-union provisions off the table, while declaring their openness on genuine budgetary issues.

Walker branded the move "ridiculous," but public support for his hard-line stance seems to be eroding. A poll released Thursday by Build a Better Wisconsin, a liberal organization, showed 65 percent of Wisconsinites opposed to Walker's proposal to eviscerate public workers' union rights. Over 60 percent of independents shared that position.

The public workers also won support from such diverse and much-revered quarters as the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee and other religious leaders. Prof. Robert DeFina, co-editor of the Journal of Catholic Social Thought directly countered Walker's use of private-sector pay cuts to justify attacks on public workers: "Let's look at the public sector as a model for how we can develop a strong social safety net," DeFina said. "The argument seems to be let's use the bad to make everyone worse, instead of let's use the good to make everyone better." President Obama, in an interview with a Milwaukee TV station, added a note of support, stating, "Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions."

By sheer coincidence, Walker has been sandbagged by the constant stream of news coverage of massive protests for democracy in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, subtly imprinting a connection between the Middle East and Madison. Further, Walker's imperious and intransigent "no compromise" position deepens the linkage between the two sets of struggles, a point made incessantly by protest speakers and reflected on picket signs.

Even U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin who is a staunch Walker ally and fierce opponent of public-sector workers, unconsciously recognized the parallel when he blurted out on national TV, "It looks like Cairo has moved to Madison."

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