A funny thing happened on the way to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s goal of rolling back the hard-earned rights and benefits of his state’s public employee unions. Tens of thousands of citizens began marching in the streets of Madison.
A newly elected Republican, Governor Walker wants his GOP-controlled state legislature to pass a law that forces state workers to pay more for their pensions and health insurance coverage and takes away most of their collective bargaining rights. Ironically, Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to grant public employees collective bargaining rights.
An imperious Governor Walker says there will be no negotiations on his union-busting budget plan. If the legislature doesn’t pass his plan, Walker has threatened massive layoffs and cuts in state services that will cost thousands of jobs.
And in a move that would make Hosni proud, Walker put the National Guard on alert in case state workers strike or rise in protest. The Wisconsin Guard hasn’t been called out in a labor dispute since 1934. (And that situation was deadly.)
On Tuesday, February 15, approximately 15,000 people jammed inside the Capitol building and on the grounds to express their opposition to Walker. The next day, schools in Madison were closed as 40% of the teachers union’s 2,600 members called in sick and joined the growing throng of protestors at the Capitol.
Also on Tuesday, more than a thousand demonstrators gathered outside Governor Walker’s home. The line of protestors was ten blocks long.
Surely, this is all big national news, right?
In recent weeks, our national news media was awash with breathless coverage of the mass demonstrations in Egypt that brought down a dictatorship. That was as it should be. The defiant pro-democracy rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square were clearly and importantly newsworthy. So why isn’t it newsworthy when 10,000 Wisconsin citizens gather in the frigid streets of Madison chanting, “This is what Democracy looks like!”
In fact, many of the protesters in Madison recognize similarities between their struggle to maintain their rights and the Egyptians’ battle against an autocratic, oppressive regime. Some protest signs in Wisconsin say things like, “Hosni Walker,” “Don’t Dictate, Negotiate,” and “Dictators Will Fall.”
Our news media should be showing all Americans the sights and sounds of this popular uprising within our own borders. There should be up-close-and-personal feature stories about the local Madison businesses giving free food and coffee to the demonstrators — or police officers buying lunch for protesting state workers. Or the cheers that rose up when a column of hundreds of firefighters from across the state joined the protest, marching to the sound of their bagpipers.
Governor Walker had tried to keep the cops and firefighters out of this fight by exempting them from his regressive new anti-labor law – but Walker’s gambit to divide key groups of Wisconsin’s public employees against each other didn’t work. The President of Madison Fire Fighters Local 311 declared that even if supporting the protest leads to the cops and firemen getting their rights and benefits cut, too – organized labor sticks together.
“Oh you can’t scare me, I’m stickin’ to the union…”
Of course, the struggle in Madison isn’t just about public workers’ rights in Wisconsin. It could be a pivotal event for the labor movement in America: a galvanizing moment when working people begin to push back against the 30-year conservative war on organized labor that began when Ronald Reagan broke the PATCO union during the air traffic controller’s strike.
“Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions. And I think it’s very important for us to understand that public employees, they’re our neighbors, they’re our friends. These are folks who are teachers and they’re firefighters and they’re social workers and they’re police officers.
“They make a lot of sacrifices and make a big contribution. And I think it’s important not to vilify them or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees.”
But where Obama sees “neighbors” and “friends” who “make a lot of sacrifices and make a big contribution” – right wing gasbag Rush Limbaugh sees only enemies, calling teachers “parasites” and union workers part of an “anti-democracy” movement.”
It’s sad to think that Limbaugh’s ranting may carry farther on the media airwaves than President Obama’s pro-union message.
And why has Governor Walker launched his assault on middle-class jobs and collective bargaining? Walker claims his state is broke — but an independent analysis by the Wisconsin Fiscal Bureau projects a net positive balance of $56 million for the state budget at the end of 2011. And a report by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future estimates the cuts in public employees’ pay will cost the state $1.1 billion in reduced economic activity annually – which will lead to the loss of some 9,000 private sector jobs.
This trumped-up “budget crisis” is really an extension of the Republican war against workers’ rights that Walker’s fellow GOP governors, like Ohio’s John Kasich and Arizona’s Jan Brewer, are also waging.
But in Wisconsin, Walker is facing a revolt. And that revolt has spread to the legislature itself.
Today, on Thursday February 17, in the midst of heated debate as Walker pressed his GOP majority to hastily ram his budget plan through the legislature — all 14 members of the Senate Democratic caucus walked out — depriving the state Senate the three-fifths majority it needs for a quorum on budgetary issues. Soon afterward, the NBC affiliate in Madison reported that the Democrats left the state entirely.
“I know the whereabouts of not a single Democratic senator,” said Democratic Party communications director Graeme Zielinski Zielinski. “I do not know what latitude they’re on, or know what longitude they’re on. I assume they’re in this hemisphere, I’ll say that.”
GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said that at some point, if necessary, Republicans will call upon the State Patrol to round up the Democratic diaspora and return them to the Senate floor. (And how’s this for nepotism, cronyism, and conflict of interest? The state Senate leader and the Assembly Speaker are brothers — and the new head of the State Patrol is their dad. You just can’t make this stuff up.)
Working people in America are fighting for their survival. This uprising by unions members and citizens of Wisconsin should be a major news story.
We’ll see what kind of play it gets in the corporate-controlled (and thus, anti-union) national media — other than MSNBC.
I hope so.
I doubt he’ll have to worry about any Cheese-heads hitting him in the head.