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Book of Matthew: The plight of the Wisconsin state worker

Published: February 18, 2011
Section: Opinions


Push people around long enough and, eventually, they will push back. Just ask Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

More than 1,000 Madison teachers called in sick Wednesday and Thursday to protest Governor Walker’s proposed budget, which will cut public employees’ salaries and prevent them from negotiating with their employers. A shortage of substitute teachers forced Madison schools to close both days.

There were no more pencils and no more books, but there were plenty of dirty looks as these mad-as-hell teachers joined 30,000 public employees and their supporters in a massive rally outside the state Capitol Wednesday, where a public hearing on the bill was being held.

Walker, a conservative Republican who is just beginning his first term, claims that his budget is necessary to close Wisconsin’s projected $137 million deficit.

The budget will force state workers to increase their pension contributions to 5.8 percent of their salaries and will double their health insurance premium contributions to 12.6 percent. It will also eliminate collective bargaining—the process by which unions and employers negotiate working conditions—except when it comes to wage increases. These can still be negotiated, but only up to the rate of inflation defined by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Voters must approve any larger wage increases in a referendum.

For the average Wisconsin state worker making $42,000 a year, these changes mean an unexpected, non-negotiable $4,000 pay cut.

Labor unions are accustomed to making concessions in tough economic times, and often do it willingly: Back in December, Wisconsin state employee unions gave up $100 million to help lessen the state’s budgetary problems. But the key word here is “willingly.” It’s one thing if Walker had merely tried to negotiate more concessions from state workers. Forcing them off the table and out of the negotiation room is another thing entirely.

Collective bargaining is a fundamental right, recognized not only by Wisconsin and the federal government, but also by international human rights law. It is the only peaceful way, short of a strike, for groups of workers to level a playing field that is stacked in favor of corporate and government bosses who would gladly pay their employees company scrip if given the chance. In a sense, it is a form of workplace democracy.

That is why so many workers—union and non-union—have turned up to protest Walker’s power grab. Wisconsin has a long labor history: It passed one of the nation’s first collective bargaining laws in 1959. Its citizens know that the fate of one group of workers at the hands of employers affects the fate of all workers. Even police and firefighters joined the protesters on Wednesday. (Their unions were actually exempt from Walker’s restrictions because they—surprise—endorsed him in the election).

Some ties can’t be severed by politics.

Even the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers released a statement in support of state workers.

“The right to negotiate wages and benefits is a fundamental underpinning of our middle class,” it read. “When workers join together it serves as a check on corporate power and helps ALL [sic] workers by raising community standards.”

In some ways, the protest is working. Though Republicans command a majority in both houses of the Wisconsin state legislature, Democrats in the state senate have delayed a vote on the budget by literally walking out the door—and denying senate leaders the quorum they need to begin debate. Still, Walker is deadly serious about this bill and has ordered the state police to track down the runaway Democratic senators who, it’s been rumored, have left the state all together. Walker has also threatened—on Fox News, no less—to deploy the National Guard in the event of a “worker walk-off.”

Research by One Wisconsin Now, a progressive watchdog group, has shined a lot of light on the reasons why Walker is being so stubborn.

As it turns out, he screwed up badly.

Of all the states that have suffered through the recession, Wisconsin is doing pretty well. Unemployment and economic development has been steadier there than in most parts of the country and, despite a drop in tax revenue, the state government has managed to keep its budget balanced. The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau even reported that Wisconsin could finish the 2009-2011 biennium with a budget surplus.

At least, that was the case until Walker took office. Apparently suffering from a post-election power trip, he spent his first month blowing through an extra $140 million. He spent $67 million on a “tax shift” plan that gives “job creators” a benefit of—I kid you not—less than a dollar per new job. He spent $48 million on private health savings accounts that more closely resemble tax shelters for the wealthy (the average adjusted gross income of the participants is $139,000, and almost half of them have not withdrawn a penny from their accounts). He even spent $25 million on an economic development fund for job creation that already had an unspent $73 million lying around. Why hadn’t the money been spent? Because the fund wasn’t creating any jobs.

Having found himself in quite a fiscal hole, Walker did what every good conservative Republican does these days and blamed the shortfall on greedy unions. Given that most of his supporters are probably Tea Partiers or, at the very least, Republicans who are skeptical of organized labor, this must have seemed like an easy target to him.

This begs the question: If you are a state governor who has tasked a large group of people to do various jobs that are necessary for the success and security of your state and the health and welfare of its people, and yet throughout your political career you treat them like parasites and demand that they work harder for even less pay without complaint, what do you expect them to do? Whistle while they work?

You should expect them to get angry.