The Class War in “Progressive” Wisconsin

by Don Taylor

Don Taylor

As I write this, we are in our fourth day of demonstrations against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget repair” bill and its’ provisions to effectively eliminate public sector collective bargaining. Today, the Democrats in the senate have fled the state, leaving the Republicans one vote short of a quorum to pass the bill. The Democrats say they will not return until the anti-union provisions are off the table.

Disguised as a bill to fix a shortfall in the current budget, this bill would:

  • Abolish public sector collective bargaining on all topics except wages. There would be no more negotiating leaves of absence, health and safety, discipline for just cause, or anything else. Negotiated wage increases would be capped at CPI; in other words, no real negotiation could occur.
  • Prohibit public employers from deducting union dues via payroll deduction. This measure is one of several that demonstrate the bill’s true intent, because it represents no savings whatsoever for the taxpayer.
  • Require all unionized units to hold annual decertification elections. Again, this relates to the budget in no way whatsoever, and is the most blatant example of the ideological agenda behind this bill.
  • Impose higher employee costs for health care and pensions for state employees.
  • Institute “right to work” for public employees.

In other words, an existing unionized unit would have to collect hand dues, would be unable to collect payment from free riders, and would be prohibited from negotiating anything except wages at some level below the rate of inflation. Then, as employee discontent grows over a perception that “the union can’t do anything,” along would come the state-mandated annual decertification vote.

The basis for this clearly is not the budget, although that’s the spin put on it by the GOP and the media. “We have to do this,” they cry, “the state is broke!” Just last month, Walker and the Republicans spent $140 million on the establishment of Health Savings Accounts and other special interest expenditures. Now, they say the state is broke, by a coincidental amount of $137 million.

Clearly, the backlash from working families has been enormous. Madison has not seen demonstrations of this size since the Vietnam War. Schools are closed. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is effectively shut down. Every day this week, thousands have converged on Madison, and have held demonstrations around the state. Firefighters and law enforcement officers, although exempt from the bill, have come in massive numbers.

There is no question that this is a coordinated frontal attack; the class war in action. With private sector union density squashed by technological change, globalization, and a rigged legal system, we’ve been warning for years that soon, they’d be coming after the public sector. The day of reckoning has come. Using the economic crisis as a pretext, they are seeking to eradicate the final barrier to the evisceration of the middle class.

The economic impact of passing this bill will be serious. Thousands of public employees across the state (all of whom are willing to “share the pain” in a fair manner) will see immediate reductions in their compensation (which, according to the Economic Policy Institute, is already 8.2% lower than in the private sector). Permanently eliminating employees’ ability to negotiate – even for a future time when the economy is doing well – will permanently reduce the pay of hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin working families.  These people will spend less money in their communities as a result – they won’t buy new cars at the local dealership, they won’t take their families out to local restaurants, and they won’t have work done on their homes by local handymen. The economic impact of this bill will be massive, and it will hurt businesses and communities statewide.  More than just a “nuclear option” for public sector unions, this bill is a bomb for the Wisconsin economy.

Much more than dealing with our current economic situation, this dismantles employees’ rights forever.  It is a permanent, far-reaching attack in response to a temporary – and overstated – problem.

But alas, facts and reality take a back seat to ideology and eliminating political enemies. If Walker and his friends get their way, more than fifty years of stable public sector collective bargaining will be undone in just five days.

If the law passes, what comes next? Will resignation and despair set in? I don’t think so. People on the ground in Madison are living through something transformative right now; this is a struggle and a fight-back unlike anything most folks have ever seen. Transformational learning takes place in lived experience. By being in the streets every day and sleeping in the capitol building every night, people in Wisconsin are re-learning that we have power.

Don Taylor is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers.

5 Responses

  1. […] A more detailed summary. […]

  2. The governor may be revitalizing the state ‘s labor movement, And the Republicans may do the same for labor generally

  3. I don’t know who I am angrier at: the republican reptiles who are showing their true colors ever more brazenly, or the voters who put the same reptiles into power. And keep doing so, knowing full well the treatment they can expect…

    How in the world are we ever going to prevail if no one can remember our past? If we are as a nation nothing more than a bunch of amnesiacs then we don’t even deserve to have a labor movement for we don’t literally know the abuses that solidarity arose to confront and defeat in the times of our great great grandparents.

    Are we the men and women they were? Hell no! We are hollowed out shells of unionists…too concerned with becoming like the suits on the other side of the bargaining table. We are fearful and ingratiating, and have been so for forty years and I know because I am 62 and remember the beginning of the long retreat that has continued unabated for decades.

    An injury to one is an injury to all. When did we forget that?

    Remember what Ben Franklin said when he signed the Declaration of Independence:

    “We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately.”

    Get some passion wage-earners! The employers hold you in thrall by your fear of not providing for your family. And they will always hold you in slavery using that fear. Take risks. Now is the time for us to prove we are worthy of our ancestors’ tremendous courage and fighting spirit. We need to turn off the tv, leave our living rooms and get out on the streets. Don’t let them take us down, union by union, state by state.

    One Big Union, fellow Americans. The wage-earners of this country are truly one big union.

  4. In Britain, they call it the ‘Big Society’ – aka, YOU work the hospitals, YOU run the libraries, YOU fight the fires, YOU catch the thieves, YOU help the old and the children. YOU clean the streets and make sure the drains work, the water runs, and the power flows.

    Oh, and by the way YOU pay the taxes.

    WE, on the other hand, enjoy our corporation tax breaks and the income from the fortune our parents were lucky enough to amass.

    I thought ‘Live Free or Die’ was important to you guys?

    Don – I’m thinking of you.

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