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ON WISCONSIN: Live Reports From Ground Zero for Labor Rights | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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ON WISCONSIN: Live Reports From Ground Zero for Labor Rights

I am a seventh-generation Wisconsinite. Members of my family have known the governors of this state since its founding. Today, I wear a “Gaylord Nelson for Governor” badge that was given to me by Nelson when I was a kid. Nelson, as a US senator, was the father of the Earth Day movement. But before he became a senator, he was Wisconsin’s governor. It was Nelson who, in 1959, began the implementation of the state’s pioneering collective bargaining law for public employees.

Today, another governor, Scott Walker, will attempt to strip state, county and municipal employees of their collective bargaining rights. It is an assault not just on workers, but on a Wisconsin tradition of respecting unions in the state where the forerunner union of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees was founded in 1932. AFSCME International President Gerald McEntee called Wisconsin “ground zero” for the fight to preserve the basic rights of public employees to organize—a fight that is already spreading to other states.

Yesterday, 30,000 teachers, state, county and municipal employees, small business owners, students and their allies rallied at noon outside the Capitol to chant: “Kill the Bill!” Last night, 20,000 teachers and their backers rallies and the filled the Capitol with shouts of “What’s disgusting! Union busting!” Demonstrations and protests have spread across the state.

Today I’ll provide updates from the Capitol and the streets.

20:00 CST: Ed Schultz Is On the Story

MSNBC's Ed Schultz, who has owned the Wisconsin story, will be broadcasting from Madison tonight. Check the show out at the MSNBC site.

Here's a piece on Ed's coverage of the story.

19:00 CST: Polls Finds Wisconsinites Think Walker Went Too Far

Building a Stronger Wisconsin, an independent advocacy group, commissioned poll that found Wisconsinites areoverwhelmingly opposed to Walker's proposal. Here's some of what the survey revealed:

Building a Stronger Wisconsin contracted with The Shop Consulting, Inc. to conduct a statewide poll regarding Governor Scott Walker’s proposed cuts to public employee benefits and collective bargaining rights. The poll consisted of a 600 response survey and was conducted on the evening of Wednesday, February 16th.

By a 2 to 1 margin, voters across that state are either strongly opposed to Walker’s proposal or think that it goes too far.

“There is no way to look at the results of this poll and not be convinced that voters from all walks of life, all ages and all across Wisconsin think Governor Walker has gone too far in both how much he expects public employees to contribute for their benefits and especially in proposing to eliminate their collective bargaining rights,” explained Randy Nash, Executive Director Building a Stronger Wisconsin.

The results show that while there is some support for increasing public employee contributions to pay for health care and retirement, those who oppose the proposal totally and those who think it has gone too far outnumber the supporters of the proposal almost 2-1.

When it comes to removing the ability to collectively bargain those opposing this change are even more solidly opposed with 65% opposing this portion of the proposal to only 31.9 percent supporting. Nearly 75% of those surveyed had no public employees in their household.

“We designed this poll to be a fair test of the Walker proposals and reached out to more than 600 Wisconsin voters. They have responded overwhelmingly that they think this proposal just goes too far,” continued Nash.

 

18:00 CST: President Hoffa is "Inspired"

Typical of the response to the Wisconsin protests from national unions, which have tried for so long to spark a movement to renew worker rights in America, is this one:

Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa saluted the tens of thousands of people streaming into Wisconsin’s capital this week to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal. 

“It’s inspiring to see middle-class workers coming together to say they’ve had enough of this one-sided class war,” Hoffa said. “Government workers didn’t cause Wisconsin’s budget problems and they don’t deserve to be punished for them. Gov. Walker’s proposal is a vindictive attack on people he views as his political enemies. He should be bringing people together to create good jobs in Wisconsin, not tearing the state apart in a crass attempt at political payback.”

Democratic senators left the Statehouse today so that Republicans couldn’t vote on the bill, which was filed six days ago, without a quorum. Hoffa praised the Democrats as courageous.

"Governor Walker is trying to make an end run around democracy,” Hoffa said.  “Democratic senators took a stand for Wisconsin workers who won’t be denied a voice in the process. They stood up in the face of injustice.”

“This union-busting budget proposal is the worst form of political payback,” Hoffa said. “Gov. Walker should be listening to middle-class workers in Wisconsin instead of shortsighted billionaires who don’t care about the long-term health of the state’s economy. The big corporations and the CEOs already have a big say about what goes on in Madison. Stripping government workers of their collective bargaining rights will silence their voices in the legislature and give even more power to the big corporate interests.”

Hoffa noted that Walker’s political campaign received a $43,000 donation from Koch Industries, the oil conglomerate owned by Charles and David Koch, longtime union foes. Walker also received $5 million from the Republican Governors Association, which is funded by billionaire Rupert Murdoch and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Wisconsin’s economy was strong when people worked together and there was balance between management and labor,” Hoffa said. “That balance has already been undermined, and now Gov. Walker wants to destroy it.

“No economy ever grew by arbitrarily driving down the living standards of working families,” Hoffa said.

Hoffa pointed to a study by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future that showed Walker’s budget proposal would cost the state $1.1 billion in economic activity and 9,000 private sector jobs.

15:00 CST Dem Senators Have Left the State, Senate Adjourns

Democratic members of the Wisconsin Senate have successfully exited the state, preventing the legislature from acting on Walker’s proposal. The Republican-controlled Senate adjourned after state troopers reported that they could not find the senators in the Capitol.

The senators confirmed that they have left the state to prevent a vote. “This is a watershed moment unlike any we have experience in our political lifetimes,” said state Senatotr Mark Miller, the Democratic minority leader. “The people have shown that the government has gone too far…. We are prepared to do what is necessary to make sure that the bill gets the consideration it needs.”

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a a Madison-area Democrat who like Miller would not disclose his location, confirmed that all fourteen Democratic senators were out of the state with him..

“We were left with no choice,” said Erpenbach.

Asked how long they would remain out of state, preventing action, Erpenbach said: “The question is when are the Republicans going to sit down seriously with the other side on this issue and try to work something out. When are we going to be reasonable about this and slow things down?”

State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said the Democrats left because “Walker is running the state like a dictator.”

Larson also said the senators were all influenced in their decision by the mass protests that have packed the streets of the state’s capital city for three days. “We are all standing with the people of Wisconsin.”

Erpenbach said Republicans should look at how the proposed changes are tearing the state apart and realize a different path is needed.

“This isn’t anything that we do lightly at all. This isn’t a prank. This isn’t a joke. This is Democrats standing together saying slow down.”

12:50 CST: Democratic Senators Block the Vote, Crowds Surge

The Republican leadership of the Wisconsin State Senate set the vote on Governor Walker’s antiunion legislation for 11 CST. Democratic senators did not show up. Under state law, at least three-fifths of senators must be present in order for a vote to be held. If all the Democrats stay out, the Senate is one vote short of a quorum. The Republican leadership of the Senate has dispatched state troopers to find the Democrats and force them to come to the chamber.

11:07 CST: Live With Ed Schultz, Thom Hartmann

I’ll do Ed Schultz’s radio show live at 11:30 CST.

I’m with Thom Hartmann live at 13:00 CST.

Both reports will be from a huge rally, which is scheduled to take place outside the Capitol, where the state Senate is scheduled to take up Walker’s bill around mid-day.

10.30 CST: Obama: It Looks Like Union Busting

President Obama was asked about the Wisconsin fight Wednesday in a television interview. The president said: “Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions.”

“I think it is very important for us to understand that public employees, they’re our neighbors, they’re our friends,” Obama added. “These are folks who are teachers and they’re firefighters and they’re social workers and they’re police officers…. They make a lot of sacrifices.” It is important, the president added, “not to vilify them or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees.”

Not a bad statement from the president. But his comments about how “everybody’s got to make some adjustments to new fiscal realities” misses the point. The workers are willing to negotiate, they have already made concessions. What’s happening in Wisconsin is not about making an adjustment, it is about taking away collective bargaining rights that have been in place for more than fifty years.

One of the state’s top lawyers just stopped by the table where I am writing and said, unsolicited: “Tell Barack it’s not about the money. It’s all about labor rights.”

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