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Workers Wage War of Words in Wisconsin

Budget battles have lead to protests in Wisconsin, a possible prelude to confrontations in the nation’s capital and across America. Public sector jobs and rights are under attack with the success of the recovery at risk as well.

Some pundits are comparing what is happening in Wisconsin to what happened in Egypt. The people of that state are up in arms about their governor’s budget plan and his bill to reduce or remove the collective bargaining power of public employees. Teachers, firemen, police officers, and transportation department workers have gathered at the state’s capitol rotunda to let their voices be heard in opposition to pay cuts and about the threat to their ability to negotiate for better working conditions, salary, and benefits.

As the budget bill came to a vote in the Wisconsin state assembly, the 14 lawmakers that make up the Democratic minority there boycotted the vote by leaving the state. Knowing that the budget-cutting mood of the Republican majority would leave these workers without a voice in their own employment and with the loss of possibly thousands of public sector jobs in that state, they left for Illinois in the hopes that the governor will reconsider his proposal. So far, Governor Scott Walker has refused to budge, and the protests continue to get louder at the state capitol. The governor even dispatched the state police to locate and retrieve the missing lawmakers.

Wisconsin’s budget problems are symbolic of the fiscal challenges facing most state governments as well as the federal government as the effects of the Great Recession continue to reverberate throughout the nation. 44 states and the District of Columbia face budget shortfalls, and the US federal deficit now stands at $1.6 trillion. The level at which Republican-dominated state assemblies and the US House of Representatives must cut to balance their budgets would be less painful had they not enacted huge giveaways for the wealthy and for corporations, all of whom received tax breaks in order to stimulate job growth, none of which has happened as of yet. Gov. Walker is also asking state employees to step up their contributions to health care and retirement pension benefits in the same way Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has demanded that the teachers’ unions contribute to these funds in order to reduce his state’s growing budgetary shortfall.

Most public workers seem to profess a willingness to compromise and contribute to their benefits packages, which were traditionally paid for by the state. In the new fiscal realities of the recession of the 21st century, public employees such as teachers should not expect to make great strides in increases in earning potential. But reducing their ability to negotiate within the context of collective bargaining seems to be regressive and counterproductive. It is ironic that such as move would be implemented in a state like Wisconsin where progressive politics and greater democracy among the people were signs of innovation and forward-thinking there during the 20th century. The public workers of Wisconsin have taken a page from the book of those demanding greater democratic freedoms in Tahrir Square in Egypt’s capital – they are using their First Amendment freedoms to assemble peacefully and to petition the government for the redress of grievances in the hopes of stemming the assault on their rights to bargain collectively. Whether the nation stands behind them or if popular opinion sides with the fiscal conservatives who were swept into power with the 2010 election remains to be seen.

Image by George Cassutto
Copyright 2011
Used with permission

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