The governor of Wisconsin is trying cut benefits and take away bargaining rights from more then 170,000 unionized public employees, and thousands of labor supporters have gathered in the capital to protest.
Citing the state’s $137 million budget deficit, Republican Governor Scott Walker revealed a plan last week that seeks to take away the public union’s collective bargaining rights and cut benefits from state employees. The legislation is believed to have the votes to pass the legislature — one of the many state governments Republicans won control of in 2010 — and could be ready for the governor’s signature as early as next week.
The Senate was supposed to take action on this proposal on Thursday, a group of Democratic lawmakers in the state senate blocked passage of a sweeping anti-union bill by hightailing it out of town. Fourteen Democrats refused to show up for the legislative vote, then abruptly fled the state to try to force Republicans to the negotiating table. Governor Walker called it a “stunt.”
More than 25,000 union members and labor supporters packed into Capital Square in Madison on Thursday to protest the legislation. Wisconsin’s Department of Administration said “nine arrests have been made in the state Capitol today as protests of the budget repair bill continue to rage.”
The crowds have been yelling chants of “Recall Walker,” and several signs compared him to recently overthrown Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The plan is only part of overall legislation aimed at closing the budget deficit. Critics say that the anti-labor provisions would do little to save the state money and the legislation is all about removing power from those in opposition to the Republican leadership.
“It’s been painted as being all about the money but what this is really about is workers who won’t be able to negotiate health insurance, pension, vacation, hours of work, the arbitration process, just cause or discipline,” said Rick Badger, the executive director of AFSCME’s Wisconsin 40 council, according to the Huffington Post. “[Walker] claims there’s nothing to bargain with. The message we need to get out there is that this could not be further from the truth.”
According to the New York Times: Among key provisions of Mr. Walker’s plan: limiting collective bargaining for most state and local government employees to the issue of wages (instead of an array of issues, like health coverage or vacations); requiring government workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to their pensions, much more than now; and requiring state employees to pay at least 12.6 percent of health care premiums (most pay about 6 percent now).
Collective bargaining is one of the most important tools that a union has for negotiating better wages and benefits. It allows the union to leverage the power of its membership against the usually disproportionally powerful management. Losing the ability to negotiate would effectively strip the unions of their power.
“I’m just trying to balance my budget,” Mr. Walker told the New York Times last week. “To those who say why didn’t I negotiate on this? I don’t have anything to negotiate with. We don’t have anything to give. Like practically every other state in the country, we’re broke. And it’s time to pay up.”
While the legislation Walker proposed would do much to close Wisconsin’s huge budget deficit, most of those savings are not coming from the provisions that harm the state’s public work force. The vast majority of the savings is coming from the state restructuring its debt.
Walker has exempted the police, state troopers, and firefighters unions from the bill. Those unions just happen to be the only three that supported Walker during his run for governor.
While the governor talks about cutting benefits and power for labor, Wisconsin is currently collecting half of the revenue it did from corporations in 1981, with two-thirds of corporations paying no taxes at all.
Filmmaker Michael Moore weighed in on Twitter with his thoughts:
So is this about budget woes or a newly elected Republican governor getting rid of the power of his political enemies? Weigh in with your thoughts below.