Less fanatical reactionaries than Gov. Scott Walker and his crew in the Wisconsin legislature would have given up by now.
Protests against Walker and his budget proposals are again rapidly gathering pace, with protesters erecting a “Walkerville” to remind public of the “Hoovervilles” that sprung up among the poor during the Great Depression. Budget hearings have been continually disrupted by nonviolent civil disobedience.
But the Republicans remain undeterred, having found another instrument to institutionalize their pro-corporate agenda. Still hanging on to majorities in both houses and with the state budget intended for passage within the next week or so, GOP politicians are still working to include a few particularly retrograde provisions.
EXPANDING CHILD LABOR
Nothing says 19th century quite like child labor (well, slavery does, too). So as not to be outdone by Gov. Paul LePage (R-Maine), who has crusaded for relaxed child labor regulations, the Wisconsin Republicans have inserted provisions into the budget bill that would severely weaken Wisconsin’s child labor laws. The new legislation would mean, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported:
revising child labor laws to end a prohibition on minors under age 18 working more than 40 hours or six days a week. The bill would also repeal the prohibition against minors under 16 working more than 24 hours a week, replacing that with a limit of 18 hours of work in a school week or 40 hours during a week with no school in session.
For Mary Bell, president of the 98,000-member Wisconsin Education Association Council, this proposal is a particularly cynical way of seducing low-income and working-class kids into working more hours at the expense of their high school education and their long-term career possibilities. As Bell told In These Times:
They’re trying to tempt teenagers into gaining a short-term financial from working a few more hours, while sacrificing opportunities for the rest of their life.
As Bell noted, Wisconsin has a very long tradition of fighting child labor, both to protect kids from brutal conditions and to ensure that they received a quality public education.
Wisconsin began adopting legislation against child labor in the early 1900s and continually strengthened the laws. The celebrated photographer Lewis Hine, a Wisconsin native, played a crucial part with his camera by documenting the lives of endless exploitation in mills, factories, and mines endured by America’s children.
Now, a century later, the Wisconsin Republicans are gleefully working to re-establish child labor, assured that tucking the measure into the budget prevents wide public discussion.
GETTING RID OF UNION ROAD CREWS
Wisconsin communities must contend with massive snowfalls during the winter with large staffs of snowplow drivers. To retain experienced, qualified workers, many communities keep these workers busy on road-maintenance projects during the non-winter months.
But to the Republican legislators, this is yet another blasphemous case of public services and unionized public employees displacing the market. The Republican budget proposal calls for, as the Journal Sentinel put it,
Requiring local governments to use contractors, instead of their own road crews, for certain projects that cost more than $100,000. Critics have said that could drive up costs for cash-strapped cities and counties.
To long-time Republican Senator Mike Ellis, this plan represents a pure giveway to powerful road-building companies.
“The only ones who seem to benefit are the road builders,” Ellis said, noting that he had made a parallel criticism last year when Gov. Jim Doyle (D-Wis.) made changes in auto insurance. Ellis added,” It doesn’t look any better when Republicans insert just as unnecessary and costly provisions that appear to benefit their friends.”
‘DECADES’ OF REPAIR NEEDED
Rather than retreat a bit or soften their style, the Republicans are revving up their tanks and prepared to run roughshod over those opposing their policies.
Nor do they even feel an obligation to discuss the far-reaching new anti-worker features and corporate giveaways being added to the budget on a daily basis.
Mary Bell spent Saturday night camped at the “Walkerville” near the Capitol and spoke with a number of passersby. When she explained some of the more outrageous features being crammed into the Walker budget, she typically got a response like, “If I don’t know about this, how can it be happening? Aren’t we supposed to know what they’re doing?”
“Apparently not,” Bell stated. The Republicans see wider disclosure and discussion as only intensifying public opposition.
With the Republican majorities in the Assembly and Senate unlikely to permit votes on amendments, opposition Democrats will be unable to stop the budget juggernaut.
While resistance to the policies of Walker seems to be growing around the state, labor and progressives will have a long task of merely repairing the damage, Bell said. She said grimly:
What we’re facing with the budget and other bils is a destruction of public services and public education. It will take decades to return Wisconsin government to serving middle-class and working people.