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Working In These Times

Friday, Dec 17, 2010, 10:40 am

Wisconsin’s Governor-Elect Launches Sharp Attack on Public Workers

BY Roger Bybee

Open to business interests: Wisconsin's Governor-elect Scott Walker is lashing out at workers before he even takes office.   (Photo courtesy of Flickr user WisPolitics)

Wisconsin Governor-Elect Scott Walker hasn't taken office yet, but that hasn't stopped him from directing a major bombardment at his state's employees. Eager to exercise power before his January 3 inauguration despite the absence of any clear mandate for his package of "free market" policies, Walker announced that public-sector workers were squarely in his sights.

On December 7, speaking at a Milwaukee Press Club luncheon, Walker said he supports 

Anything from the decertify[ing of unions all the way through modifications of the current laws in place.

The bottom line is that we are going to look at every legal means we have to try to put that balance more on the side of taxpayers and the people who care about services.

Since his election, Walker has also spurned $810 million in federal aid that would have created a high-speed rail system between Milwaukee and Chicago. With his new round of attacks on public workers, Walker is again taking another decisive step even before being sworn in. While his comment about decertification indicated seeming ignorance about Wisconsin law, it undeniably heightens the intimidation facing state workers.

Uprooting Wisconsin state workers from their unions would require a long process of changing Wisconsin law, and might well inspire illegal strikes like the 1977 three-week walkout by about 25,000 members of AFSCME. 
 

However, an incoming co-chair of the Budget Committee has already expressed that she "was open to changing state labor laws to make it easier to cut labor costs such as health and pension benefits.  Rumors are rife that the Republicans—with a 19-14 majority in the Senate and a 59-36 bulge in the Assembly—are ready to introduce "right-to-work" legislation that would ban the union shop while binding unions to absorb the costs of representing workers who were non-members.

While the chances of enacting a right-to-work law in Wisconsin would seem to be remote given the state's traditions, a stunning sell-out by two Democratic legislators has just blocked tentative agreements covering 39,000 state workers from being approved by the state.

STATE WORKERS UNDERMINED BY TWO DEMOCRATS

The two Democratic senators voting against approval were an odd couple: Sen. Jeff Plale has been the Wisconsin Democrats' version of U.S. Senators Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, while the other is Sen. Russ Decker, a former Bricklayers union staffer whose motives remain murky. Decker was labeled "a whore" by Martin Beil, director of the 22,000 members of the AFSCME-affiliated Wisconsin State Employees Union—and that was probably one of the milder terms hurled at Decker.

The contract's rejection leaves the state workers back at square one with a zealous new crop of Republican legislators with whom they'll need to negotiate:

After 18 months, more than $100 million in concessions, and negotiations that were painfully close to completion, union leaders again find themselves back at the table—and they're not happy about it.

This situation was so extraordinary that it left even Republican Mike Ellis, incoming president of the Senate, openly professing sympathy for the workers:

"I feel sorry for the workers. They got shafted by the Democratic Party," Ellis stated.

The contracts rejected by the lame-duck Senate with an 18-15 Democratic majority were very austere, including no wage increases for two years and accepting higher healthcare costs and eight "furlough" days each year for which workers are not paid and amount to pay losses of about 3.25 %.

Yet Walker wants much more. Among the additional concessions he seeks:

•   State workers to contribute 5 percent of their salaries to their pensions.
•   Doubling higher employee contributions for healthcare.
•   Privatization of some state jobs.
•   Allow employers to change work conditions without making them subject to bargaining, or eliminate public unions altogether.

Walker, of course, has a clear rationale for his war on state workers. The state faces a $3 billion deficit, and must cut state wages and jobs to compensate for the fiscal crisis, he says.

 

PUBLIC WORKERS IN BOMBSIGHTS

The state faces difficult financial conditions with a $3.3 billion deficit and prolonged, pervasive unemployment is hammering its industrial cities industrial cities. Major corporations, while slashing employment in Wisconsin, continue to set up new operations in offshore in China (big military contractor Oshkosh Truck and Johnson Controls, with the latter alone opening 10 new plants), Mexico (site of Chrysler's new engine operation pledged in writing to UAW Local 72 in Kenosha) and India (Harley-Davidson).

Massive sacrifices by union members at Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac and Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee, granted at gunpoint with the corporations threatening to relocate, have begun to set Wisconsin wages on a steep downward trjactory. This Sunday, UAW members at the Kohler Corp plants near Sheobygan will be voting on a corporate proposal similar to those at Mercury and Harley.

The UAW Local 833 members face an explicit threat that "this location will continue to shrink" unless workers adopt a wage freeze, the installation of a second tier at 65% of standard wages and a lower tier of casual workers who will make up as many as one-fourth of the workforce. Local 833's leaders have refused to endorse the proposal.

WALKER WANTS ELIMINATION OF CORPORATE TAX

Yet Walker campaigned on the notion of eliminating corporate income taxes, which would deepen the state deficit by over $800 million a year. While proclaiming himself to be "on the side of taxpayers," the Governor-elect is firmly on the side of major corporations, which pay no corporate income taxes or already enjoy a light tax load.

(The Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, a progressive think tank based in Milwaukee, discovered that two-thirds of the 50,000 corporations in Wisconsin reported zero income tax paid to the state in 2005.)

But in the mind of Scott Walker and his loyal legions in the State Legislature and followers of right-wing talk radio, these corporations are "job creators" who deserve to be deified. The budget crisis is non-existent when it comes to fully evaluating their fair share of taxes, despite the record profits being enjoyed by Corporate America.

In contrast, state employees who are already enduring pay cuts are being targeted by Walker for his next bombing run, to be accompanied by legalized corporate tax avoidance.

In the mind of Scott Walker, that somehow constitutes "restoring balance" to the state's budget.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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