Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to strip public employees of most collective bargaining rights, cut pay and gut benefits without any negotiation represents the most radical assault yet by the current crop of Republican governors on the rights of workers has inspired outrage in a historically progressive and pro-labor state.
With unions calling on members and allies to “fight back” against a “blatant power grab,” tensions are running so high that the governor, who took office in January, is threatening to call out the National Guard in case of industrial action by state, county and municipal employees. “Even if you don’t like unions,” says Rich Abelson, executive director of AFSCME Council 48, the union that represents Milwaukee County workers, “surely we all can agree that anti-freedom attacks that deny public employees the right to negotiate a fair contract…are outrageous and wrong.”
Even Republicans are unsettled, with a senior GOP legistator, state Senator Luther Olsen, describing the governor’s announcement a “radical” move that threatens “a lot of good working people.”
Walker never discussed ending collective bargaining during a campaign in which he promised to work across lines of partisanship and ideology to create jobs.
Instead, he has chosen to play political games.
The governor’s budget repair bill, which includes the plan to gut collective bargaining protections for public employees, does not seek to get the state’s fiscal house in order.
Rather, it is seeks a political goal: destroying public employee unions, which demand fair treatment of workers and hold governors of both parties to account when they seek to undermine public services and public education.
Former US Senator Russ Feingold decried the move, declaring that “Governor Walker’s request to the State Legislature to eliminate nearly all of the collective-bargaining rights for thousands of Wisconsin workers is big government at its worst. No private employer can do what the governor proposes, nor should it. For decades, Wisconsin has protected the rights of workers to collectively bargain with their employer on wages, benefits, workplace rules, and many other aspects of their employment. The governor is wrong to suggest that public workers are responsible for the state’s budget woes, and he is wrong to use that bogus excuse to strip them of rights that millions of other American workers have.”
Feingold’s reference to “American workers” is notable, as the attention to what happens in Wisconsin is about more than the wrangling between one governor and public employees in one state. If Walker succeeds, his strategy is all but sure to be adopted by other Republican governors in other states.
The claim in Wisconsin—as it has been nationally— is that overwhelming fiscal challenges require public employees to take a hit.
But the hit Walker proposes has sewn the seeds of political, social and economic instability in a state that has traditionally enjoyed good relations between government and unions.
The economic threat may well be the most significant especially at a time when Wisconsin needs to create jobs, as opposed to political fights.
State Representative Mark Pocan, a Madison Democrat, argues that: “Wisconsin is hardly ‘open for business’ if businesses can’t attract employees because of a bad employee climate in our state. The government banning employees from negotiating through unions is a radical and dangerous notion that Wisconsin simply shouldn’t embrace. If high-tech and emerging industries can’t attract employees because of our bad employee atmosphere in our state, they certainly won’t locate here.”
Despite expressions of concern even from some conservatives, Walker wants to ram a change that Democrats and Republicans agree is radical through the legislature this week, as part of the budget repair bill with no serious hearings and little in the way of honest debate.
That’s drawn bitter criticism from defenders of the state’s progressive and small-“d” democratic traditions.
State Senator Fred Risser, the dean of state legislators, does not go in for fiery rhetoric or rash statements. The Madison Democrat usually plays the role of conciliator in the Capitol, where he has served for more than five decades.
But Risser did not mince words with regard to Walker’s assault on state employees.
“State employees have the right to negotiate in good faith with the state. Without a willingness to even discuss what concessions need to be made with state employees, the governor comes across more like a dictator and less like a leader,” Risser said. “The governor’s budget adjustment bill attempts to wipe away over 50 years of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. This decree will affect every hardworking public employee in the state every librarian, teacher, street department worker and public safety worker. These are our friends and neighbors; they are the people who make our communities function.”
Risser is right on the facts.
And he is right to be angry.
A governor who seeks to eliminate labor rights is not acting as a “fiscal conservative.” He is acting as a dictator.