Friday, Mar 11, 2011, 9:27 am
War On Unions Goes Viral, Wisconsin is Patient Zero
by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger
In a shocking move, Republicans in the Wisconsin state Senate convened in the Capitol on Wednesday night to pass a union-busting bill without a quorum. The bill passed the State Assembly on Thursday afternoon, and Gov. Scott Walker signed it into law this morning. The Democratic state senators have returned from exile. Now, activists are shifting their attention to recall campaigns, court challenges, and even a general strike.
Madison Firefighters Union President Joe Conway was in the Capitol on Wednesday night to witness what he called "a criminal act by the Republicans" and "game changer for everyone." Conway called for a general public strike.
John Nichols of the Nation describes the procedural move the Republicans used to pass the bill without a quorum, on what he calls "one of the most remarkable days in American political history":
After weeks of intense debate inside and outside the Capitol, and at a point when most Wisconsinites thought a compromise was in the offering, Republican legislative leaders suddenly announced that they would pass the most draconian components of Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill – including a move to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
At this point, the 14 Senate Democrats were still in exile in Illinois, attempting to deny the Republicans the quorum they needed to pass the bill. Under Wisconsin law, the state Senate only needs a quorum to pass non-fiscal legislation. So, the Republicans ostensibly stripped out all the fiscal language from the bill and passed it hastily, without hearings or debate, in the dead of night.
Micah Uetricht and George Warner of Campus Progress call this "non-fiscal" dodge the height of hypocrisy. For weeks, Walker has justified stripping unions of their bargaining rights as a measure needed to balance the budget. The bill clearly affects the state's budget, arguably making it a fiscal bill in disguise, and possibly opening the door to a court challenge. If it is a financial bill after all, then the state Senate didn't have the power to pass it without a quorum.
Uetricht and Warner also note that the South Central Federation of Labor, the labor council that represents unions in the Madison area, with a combined membership of 45,000 workers, voted in February to begin preparations for a general strike.
The Progressive's Matthew Rothschild, who was at the Capitol, estimates that 15,000 people converged there as word spread that the bill had been passed. Cries of "General Strike!" rang out in the Capitol on Wednesday night.
As I reported in Working In These Times, the Senate Republicans may have violated Wisconsin's strict open meetings law, which requires 24 hours' notice for meetings, unless there's some kind of emergency that prevents organizers from getting the word out earlier, in which case, a minimum of 2 hours' notice is still required. The Senate was in emergency session, but nobody is claiming that there was any kind of real-life emergency that prevented the Republicans from notifying the public in a timely manner.
Andy Kroll of Mother Jones notes that the bill would allow the state to fire public employees who join a strike, walk-out, sit-in, or make a coordinated effort to call in sick.
Here's more news from Wisconsin:
- In a special comment on GritTV, host Laura Flanders asks if it's time for the first U.S. general strike since 1909.
- Peter Rothberg of the Nation asks whether the time has come for a general strike.
- David Moberg of Working In These Times explores the history, and possible future, of general strikes in America.
- Jessica Pieklo of Care2 writes about Madison as a birthplace of the labor movement.
- Jeff Leys of truthout argues that the Madison could once again become the crucible for a powerful progressive movement.
- Public News Service argues that Walker's government is staging a power grab at the expense of local control, a value Republicans supposedly hold dear.
- State Rep. Kelda Hellen Roys tells The UpTake that last night's vote was illegal because the original bill wasn't even drafted when it was voted on.
- At TAPPED, Pima Levy argues that the strategy that Republicans in Wisconsin used to pass the bill was similar to that used by federal Democrats to pass the Affordable Care Act. After the U.S. Senate Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority, they passed a "budget neutral" version of the bill, which bypassed the filibuster. She predicts that the Wisconsin GOP will face a significant backlash.
Wisconsin isn't the only state waging war on the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Ohio's Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature are poised to restrict the collective bargaining rights of 350,000 public servants. Michigan seems poised to pass a "hostile takeover" bill that would give the Republican governor unchecked power to declare cities bankrupt and appoint a manager who could cancel union contracts. In Indiana, state House Democrats are boycotting the legislature in an attempt to derail anti-union legislation.
Michigan's Republican-controlled state senate passed and sent back to the state house a "hostile takeover" bill that would give the governor the power to declare cities insolvent and appoint a city manager, who in turn, could cancel collective bargaining agreements and sell off city property without anyone else's approval, Adele Stan notes in AlterNet. Hundreds of pro-union demonstrators rallied in the state capital of Lansing on Tuesday to protest the measure.
Eartha Jane Melzer reports in the Michigan Messanger that the bill is on the fast track to passage, despite raising serious constitutional questions about the limits of executive power. “This is a takeover by the right wing and it’s an assault on democracy like I’ve never seen,“ Michigan State AFL-CIO president Mark Gaffney said.
Republicans in Indiana have had their sights set on public sector unions since they took the General Assembly in 2010. Huge crowds gathered in Indianapolis on Thursday in support of union rights. This was the 18th day of uninterrupted union protests outside the state House. Police estimated a turnout of 8,000. Democratic lawmakers, who had fled the state to prevent the passage of an anti-collective bargaining bill, said they had no plans to return.
About 3,200 people gathered at the Statehouse in Ohio to protest a bill that would severely limit the collective bargaining rights of some 350,000 public workers including teachers, firefighters, and police. Democrats say they will fight to recall the bill if it is signed into law. Mark Miller of Change.org summarizes the key provisions of the bill, SB 5, which recently passed the state Senate. Ohio Democrats are trying to stall the progress of the legislation by demanding public hearings. Unlike their counterparts in Indiana and Wisconsin, they don't have enough seats to deny the Republicans a quorum by leaving the state.
The public sector is the last bastion of high union density in the United States because public sector workers have historically been protected from the kind of union-busting tactics that are routine in the private sector. If the public sector unions are destroyed, the U.S. labor movement will die with them. The very future of the middle class is at stake.
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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.