The drama unfolding in Wisconsin enters its second week, and as tens of thousands of workers and their supporters ring the state’s capitol expressing outrage over Union-busting Republican Governor Scott Walker’s bill, the impasse doesn’t appear to be headed towards a resolution anytime soon. AlterNet has stayed on top of this momentous story, and here are the latest developments.
Update (by AlterNet Staff): Lauren Kelly draws attention to the bogus Republican “compromise” extended to protesters today:
The news out of Wisconsin today is that the state’s moderate Republicans have tossed out something of a compromise to the protesters. The proposed compromise “calls for most collective bargaining rights of public-employee unions to be eliminated—per Mr. Walker’s bill—but then reinstated in 2013.” The state’s Democrats are rejecting the offer, noting that unions have already compromised enough, having made concessions on their pension and healthcare. As Sen. Jon Erpenbach noted, “If it’s OK to collectively bargain in 2013, why isn’t it OK today?”
One concerns what health care plan teachers sign up for, which is mainly an issue of the Governor seemingly wanting to strip the health care choices of workers (if you like what you have, you can keep it!). The next is some gotcha issue about Viagra in Milwaukee, which state courts ruled against a few years later. The third, and the only state issue, is overtime rules for corrections officers. Somehow I’m not convinced that this is such a scourge. The President of the Wisconsin State Senate didn’t do the job on that either today.
Grasping at straws, that.
Update (by AlterNet Staff): Amid much excellent coverage of the Wisconsin union protests, Paul Krugman’s column in the Times yesterday is worthy of a close read:
[W]hat’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite [Wisconsin Governor Scott] Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.
Indeed. He goes on:
[I]t’s not about the budget; it’s about the power.
In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker). On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.
Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions. You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy.
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1. Democratic Lawmakers in Exile Want Fair Negotiations
According to the Huffington Post, the Democratic lawmakers who crossed state lines last week to block the passage of Walker’s bill aren’t going to return until the governor agrees to sit down and negotiate in good faith. Monday is the fifth day of their self-imposed exile. “We’ll be here until Gov. Walker decides that he wants to talk,” Sen. Tim Carpenter (D) told Amanda Terkel on Saturday.
He added that so far, the governor refuses to meet with them or even return the phone calls from members of the Democratic caucus.
“He’s just hard-lined — will not talk, will not communicate, will not return phone calls,” said Carpenter. “In a democracy, I thought we were supposed to talk. But the thing is, he’s been a dictator, and just basically said this is the only thing. No amendments, and it’s going to be that way.”
On Sunday, AlterNet posted video of Wisconsin State Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, angrily chastising the GOP majority for pushing Scott Walker’s union-busting bill through without giving lawmakers time to read it or allowing for public hearings of any kind. You can watch it here.
2. Massive Crowds for State Workers as a Handful of Tea Partiers Arrive
Last week, Mother Jones reported that masses of Tea Partiers would be bussed in by American Majority, a corporate-backed right-wing astro-turf operation, causing many progressive commenters to note the irony of the Tea Party’s new-found devotion to Big Government. As it turned out, approximately 2,000 arrived — along with Andrew Breitbart — only to find themselves out-numbered by pro-union demonstrators by a ratio as high as 35 to 1.
Fox “News” spent the whole weekend advancing the specter of thuggish unionists “rioting” at the capitol, which as usual turned out to be wrong. The Madison police Department issued a release after Saturday’s protests praising the demonstrators:
On behalf of all the law enforcement agencies that helped keep the peace on the Capitol Square Saturday, a very sincere thank you to all of those who showed up to exercise their First Amendment rights. You conducted yourselves with great decorum and civility, and if the eyes of the nation were upon Wisconsin, then you have shown how democracy can flourish even amongst those who passionately disagree.
According to MPD, there were a few minor scuffles, but no major incidents and no arrests through Saturday night. Kristine Mattis, who blogs at “Rebelpleb,” added that “rumblings that protesters have “trashed” the capitol…[are] completely false. Members of unions, particularly the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) and the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants’ Association (MGAA), have been regularly organizing volunteer crews to clean up trash and litter.” Mattis adds that a sign in the Capitol Building informing visitors that firearms aren’t permitted within “only emerged, after five days of entirely peaceful protests, when the Tea Party arrived.”
3. Wisconsin Uprising Part of a Larger Awakening
On Sunday, economist Robert Kuttner wrote that “something important that was largely missing has been kindled. Popular protest against financial abuses, top-down class warfare, clueless Republicans, and misplaced austerity is finally in the air. The labor movement is leading, and even non-union Americans are realizing why organized labor is all about protecting the middle class generally.”
Wisconsin appears to be the beginning of a larger movement, and for good reason. According to CBS News, “Nine other Republican governors from Nevada to New Jersey are also targeting unions with various proposals: decreasing wages and bargaining power in some cases, increasing what workers contribute to pensions and benefits in others.”
On Sunday, we reported that America’s labor movement is readying for a second show-down with union-busting legislators on Monday, as Indiana considers a so-called “right to work” law similar to that proposed by Wisconsin’s governor. A South Bend Tribune editorial warned hoosiers to “beware of the ‘right-to-work’ hoax that politicians and CEOs are pushing. A right-to-work law won’t help business and it won’t help workers.” Organizers are preparing to do battle in Ohio and Florida as well.
On February 26, US Uncut — a grassroots coalition that’s modeled on the movement that faced tuition hikes in the UK and has been called a liberal answer to the Tea Parties — is organizing protests across the country. The theme: no austerity while corporate tax dodgers game the system. Find out more about US Uncut here — find a local protest and mark the date.
Also, in case you missed it, check out Naomi Klein’s interview with Chris Hayes here — the two discuss why Wisconsin is so important, and touch on Uncut US’s upcoming mobilization.
4. It’s a Ginned-Up “Crisis,” but Scott Walker Isn’t Entirely to Blame for Wisconsin’s Budget Gap
It’s been widely reported, including on AlterNet, that Scott Walker inherited a $120 million budget surplus, and then promptly created a budget deficit in order to break the backs of Wisconsin’s public employees’ unions.
Politifact did an analysis of this issue which shows that Walker in fact inherited a manageable, long-term budget gap and then spun it as an imminent crisis that must be addressed this year.
The reports stem from a a Jan. 31, 2011 memo prepared by Robert Lang, the director of the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, that was picked up by the Associated Press and a number of other outlets. It does state that Wisconsin was on course for a surplus this year, which the media reported that in good faith. The issue is what Politifact refers to as the memo’s “fine print.”
[It] outlines $258 million in unpaid bills or expected shortfalls in programs such as Medicaid services for the needy ($174 million alone), the public defender’s office and corrections. Additionally, the state owes Minnesota $58.7 million under a discontinued tax reciprocity deal.
The result, by our math and Lang’s, is the $137 million shortfall.
It’s important to understand that this doesn’t change the fact that Walker dishonestly portrayed his union-busting bill as a budget fix, which, as you’ll see below, it is not.
5. More Evidence that Walker’s Bill Has Nothing to do With Wages, Benefits and the State’s Budget Gap
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has a long history trying to break public sector unions. But last week, as the Milwaukee Business Times reported, he insisted that “his bill was strictly based on the need to cut the budget and was not based on any political agenda.” Indeed, the bill was introduced by the governor as an “emergency measure… needed to balance the state budget and give government the tools to manage during economic crisis.”
But, as we reported on Sunday, a close reading of the governor’s own press release announcing the measure shows just how misleading that claim really is.
Here’s the problem, according to Walker’s release:
The state of Wisconsin is facing an immediate deficit of $137 million for the current fiscal year which ends July 1. In addition, bill collectors are waiting to collect over $225 million for a prior raid of the Patients’ Compensation Fund.
There is a $137 million shortfall for this year. Regarding the Patients’ Compensation Fund, Politifact reports that “a court ruling is pending in that matter, so the money might not have to be transferred until next budget year.”
But here are three important points from the governor’s release that show quite clearly that this bill has nothing at all to do with closing Wisconsin’s budget gap in the near-term — as an emergency measure that wasn’t even subject to public debate.
1. “The budget repair will also restructure the state debt, lowering the state’s interest rate, saving the state $165 million.” That’s right, restructuring the state’s outstanding debt yields more savings than the projected shortfall, and nobody is objecting to that provision.
2. “It will require state employees to pay about 5.8% toward their pension (about the private sector national average) and about 12% of their healthcare benefits (about half the private sector national average). These changes will help the state save $30 million in the last three months of the current fiscal year.” Yes, those give-backs would yield less than 20 percent of what the debt restructuring would bring in. And, as I mentioned earlier, the public employees’ unions offered to make those concessions in exchange for losing the provision that would bar them from negotiating their benefits package in the future, and the GOP flatly refused the offer.
3. The collective bargaining provision wouldn’t kick in until after the current contracts expire, meaning that the measure would yield exactly zero savings in the current budget.
Random Lengths News‘ Paul Rosenberg caught this, and adds that Walker is also sitting on an “unused cache of $73 million” in the state’s economic development fund — “more than twice what’s being sought from public sector workers.”
AlterNet also reported over the weekend that while far too many pundits continue to buy Scott Walker’s spin that the Wisconsin uprising is a response to the state’s public employees being asked to shoulder more of the burden for their health-care and pension costs, the reality is that it’s really all about the union-busting.
According to the Milwaukee Business Times, the unions have in fact agreed to all of the GOP’s demands on wages and benefits, in exchange for Republicans dropping the provision that would strip them of the right to negotiate in the future:
Although union leaders and Wisconsin Democratic Senators are offering to accept the wage and benefit concessions Gov. Scott Walker is demanding, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said today a bill taking away collective bargaining rights from public employees is not negotiable.
Democrats and union leaders said they’re willing to agree to the parts of Walker’s budget repair bill that would double their health insurance contributions and require them to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pensions. However, the union leaders want to keep their collective bargaining rights.
“I have been informed that all state and local public employees – including teachers – have agreed to the financial aspects of Governor Walker’s request,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Waunakee) said. “This includes Walker’s requested concessions on public employee health care and pension. In return they ask only that the provisions that deny their right to collectively bargain are removed. This will solve the budget challenge. This is a real opportunity for us to come together and resolve the issue and move on. It is incumbent upon Governor Walker to seriously consider and hopefully accept this offer as soon as possible.”
However, Fitzgerald said the terms of the bill are not negotiable, and he called upon Democrats who left the state this week to stall a vote on the bill to return to the Capitol.
On a related note, Business Insider, citing research by economist Menzie Chinn, reported that “Wisconsin’s public sector workers get paid LESS than the private sector.” Almost 5 percent less, even including healthcare and retirement benefits.
Now, we have some quick hits:
6. Bubba Arriving on the Scene?
Mike Elk reports that rumors are swirling around the capitol that Bill Clinton may be headed to Wisconsin as an act of solidarity with the unions that helped Hillary’s presidential campaign.
Crooks and Liars highlighted a bogus smear being pushed by Fox “News” — one that originated, naturally, with one of ACORN-killer James O’Keefe’s former associates.
Raw Story reported that “protesters shouted ‘Fox lies! Fox lies!’ throughout a Fox News segment on the demonstration in Wisconsin Friday.”
8. Business Community Unhappy With Walker?
Mike Elk also reported that Wisconsin’s local business community is showing signs of turning against Scott Walker.
9. Rage Against the Machine
The Wisconsin State Journal reports that “Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Wayne Kramer, Street Dogs and other musicians just announced they’ll join pro-union protesters at the Capitol” today.
10. Egyptian Workers Express Solidarity with Wisconsin’s Public Workers
Michael Moore.com has posted a statement of support, “from a place very close to Tahrir Square in Cairo,” by Kamal Abbas, the General Coordinator of the CTUWS, which is “an umbrella advocacy organization for independent unions in Egypt.” We posted this picture over the weekend:
What You Can Do — Big Weeks Ahead
The Wisconsin Uprising appears to be an opening shot in a genuinely grassroots push-back against the corporate Right’s attack on the labor movement and, more broadly, our social safety net. We’ll continue following events as they unfold.
You can offer your solidarity in a number of ways. Check out US Uncut, get out and make your voice heard.
In the meantime, you can send the protesters in Wisconsin a pizza! On Sunday, Ian’s Pizza on State Street announced on its Facebook page that it was suspending its normal in-store and delivery operations “to keep up with the high volume of calls it was receiving from people all over the country and the world seeking to buy pizza for the protesters at the Capitol.” According to New York Magazine, “Ian’s gave away 1,057 donated slices yesterday and delivered more than 300 pizzas. The blackboard behind the counter now has a running list of places where donations have come from, and it includes China and Egypt.”