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Wisconsin matters, part 1

February 20, 2011

“For anyone interested in union rights, the fight in Wisconsin couldn’t be more important,” says Harvard’s Benjamin Sachs, as quoted in the New York Times. I know that not all readers of this blog are necessarily keeping up with the latest in labor news, and I feel this particular piece of labor news is crucially important. So a summary follows: not something we normally do here (we’re generally more predisposed towards analysis), but in this case, perhaps necessary.

While the world’s attention is rightfully focused on the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, the budget battle in D.C., the contentious showdown in Madison, Wisconsin over public employees’ unions deserves no small chunk of our time and energy. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is pushing a bill that would effectively strip public employees (except, in a naked political move, police and fire workers, who tended to support Walker’s bid for governorship) of their rights to collectively bargain, would make it much more difficult for public-employee unions to collect dues, and would require an annual vote just to keep a public-employee union in existence. Of course, this is being sold under the rhetoric that excessive public-employee compensation is at the root of state and local fiscal problems (not, you know, a worldwide economic crisis caused by out-of-control Wall Street bankers who, incidentally, are at very little risk of losing their jobs and benefits).

[Note: Ezra Klein has four posts that summarize the issues at hand extremely well. I recommend all of them.]

This is a thinly veiled attempt at union-busting, pure and simple; Wisconsin’s budget problems are a sideshow. Luckily, Wisconsin’s Democratic senators did a rare thing for Democrats in recent years; that is to say, they found their spines. The Republicans need 20 members present in the Senate for a quorum; without the Democrats, they have 19. The Democrats, knowing this, refused to show up to the Capitol, and ultimately fled the state after Walker asked the police to find them. In the meantime, thousands of workers, families, and other supporters have flooded the Capitol every day since Wednesdays to protest the bill.

Whether this gaming of the system on the part of the Democrats is justifiable is a relevant question. I, and many others, would argue that the Wisconsin fight is of huge importance for public-sector unions around the country, and by extension, for all of organized labor. If such an audacious attempt at destroying the institution of collective bargaining succeeds, the consequences will be enormous. If it fails in the face of massive popular protest and principled Democratic resistance, any subsequent attempts to undermine public-sector unions in the name of budget cuts will almost certainly be more moderated.

It is crucially important to be clear about one thing, addressed by the sign pictured above: it is not that public-sector employees in Wisconsin are refusing to take pay cuts and are raising hell because they are selfish and greedy. On the contrary, such employees are already living through pay cuts and furloughs. They’re raising hell not because Walker is attempting to take money from them; they’re raising hell because Walker is attempting to take their right to organize and bargain collectively from them. And the rest of us should be raising hell about that too.

Flying Whale

(note: photo above is by me; I traveled with Jonas to Madison today to show solidarity. more photos, and thoughts on our personal experiences there, to come.)

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2 comments

  1. […] our Saturday in Madison to lend our voices to the movement against Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to destroy Wisconsin public-employee unions. We both found the experience empowering and inspiring; here are a few scattered thoughts I find […]


  2. […] Whale has already covered a lot of what I might have to say regarding the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, and our experience […]



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