“This has been a life experience we will never forget. I feel like all of these people are family.”
Union Supporter and protester, Neporsha Hamlin, of Madison, WI.
News this week of well over seventy thousand union members and their supporters occupying the Capital Rotunda of Madison, Wis., comes not a moment too soon, as workers around the country have faced vicious attacks on their basic freedom’s in the face of badly managed state budgets.
Events in the embattled state have unfolded quickly, starting with the public Teachers unions and quickly spreading to other sectors.
So far, over 40% of the city’s union teachers, acting on their own initiative, have led wildcat strikes in their schools, calling in “sick” to attend protests, closing entire school districts, with thousands of their students following in toe.
In response, city employers threatened to fire any teacher who skipped school to attend the protests. Thwarting their efforts, Doctors from hospitals across the city joined together and set up a station near the capital to provide the “sick” teachers with notes, covering their absences from work. Family physician Lou Sanner, 59, of Madison, told reporters that many of the teachers he was writing notes for appeared to be suffering from stress.
Fire-fighters in Madison joined protests last week as well, marching with other union members and supporters, with some even occupying the capital overnight.
Across the country, protest and rallies have been had in over 60 cities that we are aware of, and solidarity protests were held by the unions on Saturday at every state capital in the country.
Whats in the bill?
On February 11th, Governor Scott Walker introduced a bill (which you can read here) that would essentially destroy collective bargaining rights – the rights which legally allow workers to band together to bargain over working conditions – for Wisconsin’s nearly 175,000 state and local government employees. That Bill has now passed a house vote, and is awaiting a vote in the State Senate.
Barring police and fire-fighters, most workers employed by the State of Wisconsin would lose their right to bargain over wages that exceeded inflation, and could be terminated for participating in legally protected acts of protest if the Governor ever declared a “State of Emergency.” Home health care workers, family child care workers, UW Hospitals and Clinics employees, and UW faculty and academic staff would lose their collective bargaining authority altogether.
State employees would be barred from negotiating a contract which lasted longer than a year, and employees who have voted to certify as a union would automatically lose their recognition at the end of one year, and have to run an entirely new certification campaign in order to remain union.
To justify his vicious attack on workers, Walker argues feebly that the state’s budget shortfall has tied his hands. In a letter to Wisconsin State Employees, he cites a strange statistic to back himself up – “In the current fiscal year which ends on June 30, 2011, we face a budget deficit of $136.7 million.”
He fails to mention that before his recent debt plan, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported that the state would actually end the year with a surplus. Walker and Republicans themselves sunk the State into debt by spending hundreds of millions on benefits for the wealthy.
Their new debt plan gave $48 million to private health savings accounts, which reports found regularly only benefited wealthy people – people with an average adjusted gross income of $139,000. The HSA accounts are, in fact, primarily serving simply as tax havens for the wealthy, nearly half of whom reported withdrawing nothing from their accounts.
The handouts to the wealthy – which happened to also bankrupt the state – have prompted SEIU president Mary Kay Henry to speculate that this year’s “budget crisis” may well have been engineered specifically to justify anti-union legislation.
Perhaps most revealing of all, however, is the recent discovery that Wisconsin tax payers are not in fact paying for the pensions and health insurance plans of state workers – one of the biggest rallying cries of conservatives.
In a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, author Rick Ungar found that: “Gov. Scott Walker says he wants state workers covered by collective bargaining agreements to “contribute more” to their pension and health insurance plans. Accepting Gov. Walker’ s assertions as fact, and failing to check, creates the impression that somehow the workers are getting something extra, a gift from taxpayers. They are not. Out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin’ s pension and health insurance plans for state workers, 100 cents comes from the state workers.”
As it turns out, workers receive their pension and health insurance plans using “deferred compensation” – money that employees otherwise would have been paid as cash, but instead have placed in the government operated pension fund where the money is then invested.
What next for us workers?
When asked why she was attending protests in Madison, 30 year old Virginia Welle, a teacher at Chippewa Falls High School, told reporters in no uncertain terms that she was “fighting for my home and my career.”
More than that, though, workers in Wisconsin are fighting on the frontline of what is quickly becoming a heated nationwide assault on workers’ rights. Already, similar bills have been proposed in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Tennessee, and Iowa.
But in Wisconsin, the next step for the Republican controlled government is to kick the protesters out of the capital.
They may try a number of things to do so. They have already, in fact, passed new rules barring protesters from sleeping overnight in the capital building – a move opposed so thoroughly by the public that even the head of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association called on the governor to keep the Capitol open.
But that will not be enough to end the unrest. Even “If they kick us out,” says Dan Wise, a 19-year-old Technical College student who has been attending class by day and protests by night, “we will protest outside.”
The smarter, and more likely move that the Walker administration will take is to try to “compromise” on the bill, offering to the Democrats and Union Leaders a more watered down version of the same crap.
If the workers stay out in the streets, and continue to occupy the capital, Walker will eventually come to terms with the fact that he has to compromise in order to quiet the crowds. The problem is that Walker, in an effort to keep as much of his bill as possible, will look to compromise with Democrats, and not with the workers themselves (who undoubtedly have much more at stake than the politicians).
The Democrats, in turn, will lean on their lackeys in the union leadership to begin helping to reign the crowds in.
The rank and file of Wisconsin, if it is interested in stopping this bill, has to ignore the calls that may soon come from their union leaders should the Democrats reach a “compromise” with Walker. The union bureaucracies of every country have always, when push came to shove, been fundamentally on the side of the employers – on the side of the state. Although they may support the basic rights of their members, and may even at times support their militancy, the union leadership has an interest fundamentally at odds with the rank and file.
The union leadership, in the end, is interested in dues collection. The union leadership is interested in “seats at the table” with the Democratic Party, and the union leadership is interested in maintaining its position as “union leaders.” They will, at all costs, defend this holy trinity of modern business unionism, if necessary against their own members.
The creative and brave initiative of the Wisconsin rank and file, in fact, have put some of these interests at risk. Union leaders are at this moment scrambling to regain control over their workers, who without being instructed, led one of the most brash wildcat strikes in recent memory. They are concerned the workers may realize that not only are they capable of acting independently of their union presidents, but that their independent action is twice as effective!
The single most important thing to do now is to keep that independent spirit alive amongst the workers of Madison.
To do this, and to bring more workers on board with the Teachers, workers must devote all of their energy to building for the general strike in Wisconsin, which the South Central Federation of Labor (representing 45,000 workers from 97 different unions) has recently announced it endorses. The prospects are superb, with an outpouring of solidarity the likes of which this country has not seen for years.
In using this spirit of mutual support and understanding to build a general strike, workers in Wisconsin can definitively show that our greatest power, and our greatest virtue, is our ability to withdraw our labor power from society, and in so doing, pound the forces of reaction into submission.
Perhaps Joe Hill, the famed “troubadour of the IWW,” said it best, when he observed that: