From his first day in office, new Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker has been aggressively applying huge jolts of what Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein called “shock therapy”—forcing the acceptance of unpopular policies upon a disoriented and demobilized population.
Walker has skillfully played off of the wave of concessions extorted by profitable private-sector corporations like Harley-Davidson and the Kohler Corp. He has continually highlighted these pay cuts as a rationale for removing almost all union rights from public-sector workers, whom he has branded as the pampered “haves” victimizing “have-not” taxpayers of Wisconsin.
Walker has been proclaiming that he will enact huge layoffs of state
workers if the legislature fails to enact his bill eradicating union rights and ramming through massive concessions. In an interview with host Ed Schultz on “The Ed Show” Monday night on MSNBC, two married teachers, Brad and Heather Lutes of Sun Prairie, Wis., estimated that Walker’s demands would cost their family $8,000 to $12,000 annually.
But apparently Walker thinks the threat of layoffs was proving insufficiently intimidating. On Friday, he revealed that he’s ready to call the National Guard if public workers (specifically, prison guards) stay home in protest of what may be the most draconian anti-union legislation ever offered in the United States.
The Wisconsin National Guard’s history in labor disputes most memorably includes the notorious massacre of seven workers and supporters (including a 12-year-old boy) during a May 1886 strike in Milwaukee for the 8-hour day. Gov. Jeremiah Rusk infamously justified his role in calling out the Guard in these terms: “I seen my duty and I done it.”
Walker’s linkage of the National Guard to his legislative package should raise suspicions about its legitimacy, Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt explained during the lengthy segment about Wisconsin on The Ed Show Monday night. “If you have to mention bringing in the National Guard in connection with getting legislation passed, maybe it’s time to wonder about
what the legislation contains,” Neuenfeldt stated.
Walker is using the state’s budget crunch to stage a major power
grab and to disenfranchise working people, his critics have charged.
Although this stunningly radical move is being cloaked as a budget necessity, it is a cruel hoax because Governor Walker and the legislature have full authority to balance the state budget without attacking the fundamental rights of workers,” said Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin.
“In reality this is a naked power grab by the large corporate interests that back Scott Walker and who seek unfettered control over Wisconsin politics.”
Despite Walker’s efforts to depict government workers as privileged,
Wisconsin’s public workers actually earn 14.2% an hour less than their private counterparts, according to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think-tank based in Washington, D.C.
Despite this inconvenient fact, Walker has placed the anti-public worker provisions within a bill purportedly aimed at fixing the state’s immediate budget deficit of $136.7 million. However, Walker has betrayed the hollowness of this rationale, handing out $140 million in tax breaks to corporations and the rich since taking office January 7.
Clearly, Walker’s legislation has little to do with budget repairs — and everything to do with stripping public workers of their rights.
In the words of labor historian Stephen Meyer of UW-Milwaukee, “It goes further than anything since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947,” which
allowed states to adopt “right-to-work” laws which ban the union shop
yet mandates unions to undertake the cost and responsibility of
representing members and non-members alike.
“In fact, Walker’s plan is worse than the ‘right-to-work laws because it requires that unions get certified by their members yearly, at the same time that the unions are prevented from accomplishing anything for their members,” Meyer points out.
Among the features of the Walker plan:
- Public-employee unions would be restricted to bargaining
over wages, with working conditions and benefits excluded.
- Public-employee contracts would be restricted to a length of
one year, thus vastly increasing the cost of negotiations which
typically cover two years for state employees and three years for
local public employees and teachers.
- As noted, each year, the unions would need to hold an
election to be re-certified annually as the bargaining
representative of the workers. Annual organizing drives would add
significantly to the cost of union administration.
- Unions would no longer be allowed to collect dues via dues
checkoff, nor could they assess non-members “agency fees” for the
costs of representing them in both collective bargaining and
individual grievance and disciplinary disputes.
- Wage increases for local units of public workers (e.g.,
teachers, sanitation workers, etc.) would be limited to the rate of
- Wage increases could be granted only with the passage of
local referendum, thereby requiring vast political outlays by unions
to positively influence the referenda outcomes.
- State and local public employees would pay 12.6% of their
health costs, a doubling of their present share.
- Pension payments for public employees would rise to 5.6%
Limited-term employees would lose all healthcare benefits.
- University of Wisconsin faculty, granted collective bargaining rights for the
first time in 2009, would again be deprived of any union rights.
- Graduate teaching and research students would be required
to pay about 20% of their income to cover healthcare benefits,
estimated UW-Milwaukee philosophy Prof. Bob Schwartz.
The punitive and anti-union character of the bill is obvious, as this summary of the bill by the state’s Legislative Research Bureau indicates:
This bill authorizes a state agency to discharge any state employee who fails to report to work as scheduled for any three unexcused working days during a state of emergency, or who participates in a strike, work stoppage, sit−down, stay−in, slowdown, or other concerted activities to interrupt the operations or services of state government, including specifically purported mass resignations or sick calls.
The Walker bill would thus effectively cripple public-employee unions in Wisconsin. While the Wisconsin push is part of a national campaign in numerous states, it remains a highly controversial step in Wisconsin, the very first state to grant collective-bargaining rights to local government workers and teachers in 1959. State workers gained similar rights in the early 1970’s.
Given a half-century of essentially positive bargaining history and fearing an electoral backlash, even normally strident Republican legislators have been notably quiet about the Walker plan.
To generate support, Walker has defended his package of cuts and the
decimation of union rights as designed to prevent layoffs. “The last thing we need is any more people on unemployment,” Walker said during a news conference to release details of his proposal.
But in reality, Walker’s cuts in employee benefits and pay would
have a devastating economic impact on the state as its industrial cities struggle to recover from the recession. According to the Institute for
Wisconsin’s Future, the slashing of pay and benefits proposed by
Walker would severely weaken consumer spending power across the
state, resulting in the loss of about 10,000 jobs.
Combined with his rejection of $810 million in job-creating federal mass-transit funds, Walker is deepening the job deficit rather than making progress on his campaign promise of 250,000 jobs.
With Walker’s national guard threat adding to the fury of public
employees, government workers and their allies held rallies across
the state over the weekend and on Monday. Near Kenosha on Sunday, teachers and firefighters picketed outside the McMansion of a conservative Republican legislator. They carried signs depicting Egypt’s deposed despot Hosni Mubarak and Gov. Walker, reading “One dictator down, one to go.”
A spirited event at UW-Milwaukee yesterday drew about 500, with
Prof. Maurice Kilmein Guevara denouncing Walker for “trying to drag
worker rights back into the 19th century.”
To build public support, Wisconsin AFL-CIO is airing TV ads (see below) against the Walker plan, stressing that union rights are the pillar of support for the middle class. As President Neuenfeldt put it, “This is an attack not just on unions, but the entire middle class. Because as we fare around wages and benefits, so do those workers who are not represented.”
More rallies are set for today and Wednesday at the State Capitol, as
workers and students bus in from around the state.
With legislative floor action expected Thursday, the mood of public
workers is growing increasingly militant.