Economy

Wisconsin Uprising Continues Under a Barrage of Disinformation and Dirty Tricks

As the nationwide attacks on state workers continue, protesters in Wisconsin keep up the resistance.

Over the last 10 days, well over 100,000 people have descended upon the picturesque capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, braving freezing temperatures to voice their dissent. The source of their ire is a newly elected governor who refuses to back down from his push to abolish most of the collective bargaining rights of his state's employees.

Union members have come in droves to the capitol building to fight for their survival, and they have been joined by service employees, pipefitters, private school teachers, university students and children. Hundreds of them have set up a permanent camp around the capitol, with many sleeping on the hard marble floor.

“Come to Madison,” said Norm Stockwell, a local community radio station manager. “You needn’t worry where to sleep or about food, simply bring a sleeping bag and we can assure you that you’ll be fed.” Ian’s Pizza, a popular town favorite, has been fielding donations from all over the world for pizza deliveries to protesters.

Demonstrators like Matthew Curry, a student at the University of Wisconsin, were not short of reasons to explain their semi-permanent presence. Scores of his family members and loved ones face the possibility of paying a painful price for Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposals. Curry explained that he is “here because the bill is targeting the UW Madison specifically. I’m here for my mom, she’s a speech language pathologist in a south Milwaukee elementary school district. I’m here for my aunt, she’s a nurse and has been here for the last couple of days. I've actually been sleeping in the capitol for the last three days.”

Walker’s proposal is not your run-of-the-mill budget-saving measure. It not only proposes deep cuts to the wages and benefits of state workers – requiring most public workers to pay half their pension costs, which is generally about 5.8 percent of pay for state workers, and at least 12 percent of their health-care costs – but also abolishes the collective bargaining rights of most state employees on the question of employee benefits (including sick time, vacations, pensions and other work conditions). Wisconsin’s state workers already pay into their pensions and health-care plans through deferred wages, a fact that has been missed in most mainstream news media accounts.

Walker's justification for pushing the bill through the legislature as an “emergency measure” is a deficit of $137 million in the current fiscal year and $3.6 billion in the next two fiscal years. However, critics chargethat the crisis was not caused by the workers and that Walker’s own budgeting policiescan be faulted in part for the deficit.

The number of protesters swelled into the tens of thousands both this past Monday and last Saturday, and the battle is promising to rise to a fever pitch by tomorrow at noon. Protest organizers are anticipating the support of nationwide demonstrations. Slated to take place in front of every state legislature and many major cities, the protests are dubbed the “Save the American Dream Rally.”

Governor Walker has not ruled out the possibility of calling out the National Guard to quell the passionate protests and daily demonstrations, a consideration that has drawn criticism.

“The National Guard is not his own personal intimidation force to be mobilized to quash political dissent ... this is a very dangerous line the governor is about to cross,” said VoteVets.org’s RobinEckstein, a former member of the guard.

The demonstrations take place against a backdrop of high political drama. Governor Scott Walker claims he has found himself in the middle of a budgetary “crisis” that necessitates ending the collective bargaining rights of most of the state’s workers. Given the extremity of the proposal, all 14 of the state senate’s Democrats left the state on Feb. 17. Most were reportedly camping out in Illinois, preventing the quorum necessary for a vote to take place.

Wisconsin Republicans have taken several measures to lure the Democrats back to the state, but nothing has worked thus far. As reports trickled in that senators were returning to their homes for clothes and personal items during the last few days, state troopers were dispatched to their homes. However, in spite of multiple attempts, not one senator has been found or confronted by police.

In another attempt to force the Democrats’ hands and make them return to Madison, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (Juneau) introduced legislation the Democrats detested. The bill would have required voters to show identification at the polls during future elections, a measure widely seen as disproportionately and negatively affecting Democrats.

There was a snafu with the ploy, however, as the bill had to have a financial component to fund voters without IDs. This component was inserted to prevent lawsuits that would have struck down the legislation as discriminating against those without IDs. As a result of this financial component, the bill could not avoid quorum requirements and Republicans found themselves with the same problem they had to begin with: there were no Democrats present to vote on the bill. The bill wound up becoming a couple of floor speeches with Republicans decrying the fact that their colleagues across the aisle continued to be AWOL.

With all of this political and protest drama providing a backdrop, mainstream news media coverage has centered on events and recent developments, as opposed to the roots of the purported crisis as well as its more substantive elements.

Misinformation on State Employees and Unions

A lot of press has been generated over the course of the last few months, mostly by newly elected Republicans claiming that state workers are a huge drain on state government expenditures. Rife with accusations of inflated salaries, attacks have since taken place on state workers and their collective bargaining rights all across the country. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, this is a baseless charge.

In a study conducted last May by economist John Schmitt, state and local public workers were found to earn about 4 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector, when compared against private sector workers of the same educational and age backgrounds. When benefits are factored into the equation, the differences are even more prominent and are at about 11 percent.

Critics have often pointed out that collective bargaining rights do not directly translate into dollar amounts that can save state lawmakers money to help out budget deficits. Others have argued that state workers, as well as the unions that represent them, were not a cause of the crisis in which state governments find themselves.

Some Republican governors have drafted costly business tax-saving measures, which in some ways have resembled costly legislation Republicans pushed through Congress, successfully garnering President Obama’s approval for renewing Bush-era tax-breaks for the wealthy. Wisconsin is one of several states to do so, as the governor signed two business-friendly tax breaks and health-care legislation that will lower Wisconsin's tax revenues in the coming years. With a stroke of the pen, Walker added some $120 million to the 2011-2013 budget gaps and quite possibly even more in subsequent years.

In the case of Wisconsin, Walker’s proposal would abolish the collective bargaining rights of most, but not all workers. Firefighters, police and state troopers – constituencies traditionally loyal to Republican officials – are all exempted under the bill. The proposal forces all other state workers to hold annual elections to maintain union representation and disallows automatic dues deductions from their paychecks. Both measures are widely seen as union-busting techniques.

The Wisconsin battle resembles many other states across the nation, as Republican calls to balance budgets on the backs of workers and their collective bargaining rights have been going on for months and are now coming to a fever pitch.

Nation-Wide Phenomenon

According to the National Education Association, no fewer than 12 states are pushing “right to work” legislation that would severely limit or eliminate union organizing, 20 states are attacking collective bargaining rights and 49 states are facing grave threats to state government pensions, which are being under-funded and in some instances, raided altogether. The attacks are being launched nationwide and are coming to a simmering pitch.

In Ohio, Senate Bill 5 was originally fashioned to repeal the state’s 27-year-old collective bargaining law for state workers. The bill would have banned collective bargaining on all issues. Modifications softened the bill, but the measure would still ban bargaining on benefits, while other provisions ban public workers from striking.

In Oklahoma, legislation that would strip collective bargaining rights from city workers in the state’s 13 largest municipalities squeaked out of a Republican-controlled legislative committee on Wednesday. Idaho Superintendent of Education Tom Luna introduced legislation that would restrict collective bargaining rights for public schoolteachers. Several legislative measures have been introduced to the 107th Tennessee General Assembly that force significant cutbacks on public school teachers and state workers.

A bill floating in the Florida state legislature would require public employees to contribute up to 5 percent of their pay toward pensions. Florida’s governor claims the measure is necessary because of the state’s budget woes.

Labor organizers have won some victories, however, most prominently in Indiana. Democrats were successful in staving off a Republican bill that prohibited union membership requirements within existing shops of state workers. They did so by leaving the state altogether this past Tuesday. Similar to Wisconsin representatives, Indiana’s state Democrats also reportedly fled to Illinois, where they remain in an effort to defeat another anti-union measure by Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, who is still trying to restrict teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

Wisconsin Carries On

As the nationwide attacks on state workers continue, protesters in Wisconsin continue to resist by occupying the state capitol building and its periphery. Meanwhile, most press coverage continues to converge on a state better known for its cheese and its publicly owned football team than pitched labor battles. It is anyone’s guess what might happen in the days and possibly weeks to come as this drama unfolds.

One thing is certain: political participation in Wisconsin is at an all-time high and Governor Walker’s attempt to derail unions will not be won without a long and protracted fight. The eventual outcome of what has been nothing short of an all-out political battle may very well impact the fate of scores of other states and state workers who continue to fight to preserve the right to union representation.  

Theresa Campagna contributed reporting from Madison to this article.