Class War Heats Up in Wisconsin

Rising Republican star U.S. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was clearly thrown "off-message" by the sight of tens of thousands of pro-union demonstrators protesting Governor Scott Walker's plan to eviscerate public-sector unions in Wisconsin. While being interviewed on national TV, an obviously-stunned Ryan unconsciously let slip the dramatic parallel to Egyptian protests for democracy and against one-person despotism, saying, "It looks like Cairo has moved to Madison."


The comparison is apt indeed. The state capitol has been surrounded since mid-February by tens of thousands of demonstrators denouncing Walker's bill. On February 26, despite falling snow and icy roads, over 100,000 people protested at the capitol. Instead of Walker scoring a quick victory by virtually destroying public-sector unionism in Wisconsin, one of its major strongholds, he ignited massive resistance from all sectors of the labor movement, liberals and progressives unaffiliated with labor, community organizations among the poor, civil rights groups, environmentalists, and local public officials across the state.


By fleeing to Illinois, 14 Democratic senators blocked the Republicans from gaining the quorum of 20 needed for a vote on the budgetary bill in the State Senate. From various sites around northern Illinois, the Wisconsin Democrats have been interviewed non-stop by media from across the nation. The Wisconsin protest inspired other demonstrations across the nation, especially in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, and New Jersey, where Republican victories in November 2010 put the GOP in a strong position to ram through their anti-worker agenda.


Even three state unions which Walker exempted from his draconian proposal—police, state troopers, and firefighters, in an apparent reward for their political endorsements last fall—sided with the other public workers against the governor. Also declaring their support of public sector workers have been groups as diverse as religious leaders, including two Catholic archbishops, and the pride of Wisconsin, the Super Bowl-winning Green Bay Packers.


When Walker unleashed his plan on February 11, he expected the intricately-timed operation to work smoothly. Walker's announcement that he was prepared to call up the Wisconsin National Guard to replace state employees if they rebelled (later modified to replace only prison guards) was intended to intimidate state workers. He believed that a long-prepared bombardment of radio and TV ads by the Club for Growth—beginning almost simultaneously with Walker's speech—would focus debate exclusively on the purported privileged status of public workers and would ease the way for big Republican majorities in both houses to pass the bill within a week.


Had Walker's plan proceeded, the bill would not only have effectively extinguished public-employee unionism in the state where it was first legalized in 1959, but he would have shown other Republican governors how to crush the last bastion of union strength in other states around the U.S.—public employees make up more than half of all union members. Mike Imbrogno, a cook who makes $28,000 a year at UW-Madison, emphasized that public unions are a critical force to uphold living standards and a voice for workers: "[Walker's] basically trying to smash the last remaining organized upward pressure on wages and benefits in Wisconsin."


Due to what Business Week characterized in 1994 as "one of the most successful antiunion wars ever, illegally firing thousands of workers for exercising their right to organize" since the 1980s, private-sector unionization has diminished despite polls which show 52 percent of Americans would join a union if they had the chance. At the same time, the export of millions of jobs from unionized factories in the north to the south and increasingly to even lower-wage offshore sites, unions represent just 6.9 percent of private workers.



Walker hoped to set off a chain reaction in other states that would shatter the public-sector and deprive the Democrats of their key on-the-ground organizational asset and a crucial funding pillar. Judith Davidoff of the Madison Capital Times summarized labor's vital political role: "As the 2010 elections showed, public sector unions were the only groups with enough cash and people power to counter the corporate money that flowed to Republicans once spending restrictions were lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case."


A quick "shock therapy" success against public unions would have set the stage for further shifting Wisconsin from its generally progressive traditions toward a low-wage, de-unionized, southern-style model where the undisputed first priority of state government remains subsidizing large corporations.


Finally, Walker's pretext for union-busting and vast cuts in education and health care—an all-consuming preoccupation with budget deficits—would have pushed the federal budget debate even further to the right. While President Obama has issued two statements against the "assault on unions" in Wisconsin, his official spokesperson Jay Carney laid out a perspective that distressingly accepts the Republicans' fundamental assumptions: "They [states] need to act responsibly, tighten their belts, live within their means just as we in Washington, the executive branch, Congress, need to do with our federal situation." Republicans have similarly argued that the federal government's strategy in a recession should be no different than that of a family strapped for cash: avoiding any unnecessary outlays (except for tax cuts for the richest 2 percent) and getting out of debt as rapidly as possible.


Of course, the Carney view and Republican perspective ignore the situation we face: the private sector is unwilling to invest in the U.S. because of weak consumer demand for their products and a preference for low-wage production sites in Mexico, China, and India (U.S. firms created 1.4 million jobs offshore in 2010, with minimal increases in family-supporting jobs). For their part, consumers are strapped for cash due to plant closings, layoffs, and wage cuts. Under such conditions, the economy can only be re-ignited again with the stimulus of government spending. But, as U.S. economist Dean Baker argued in the British Guardian, Republicans will almost certainly be able to block any new economic stimulus that would create a much more vigorous recovery should President Obama even propose such measures.


Surprising Rebukes


Walker and his allies have attempted to shift resentment over the state's economic misery onto public-sector workers. By almost all measures, this gambit has failed. Walker's proposals instead triggered wide discussion about the increasing share of income raked in by the lightly-taxed richest 1 percent and major corporations. Most importantly, polling data from a variety of sources—including NBC News/Wall Street Journal, NY Times/CBS News, Gallup/USA Today, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research—consistently show support for the right of public workers to collectively bargain in the 60 to 65 percent range.


Walker has seen his approval numbers drop to 39 percent, with over 50 percent of Wisconsinites disapproving of his record in his first two months in office. A Public Policy Polling survey showed state voters split 48-48 percent on whether he should be recalled. The same PPP opinion study showed that if the November 2 election were to be run now, Walker would lose to Democratic candidate Tom Barrett by a 52 to 45 percent margin.


Walker also got surprising rebukes from Republican State Senator Dale Schultz, who called Walker's actions "a classic case of overreach." With three Republican votes required to defeat the anti-union bill, Schultz's statement was a possible indicator that the implacable Republican wall of unity may be cracking. With 14 of the 19 Republican senators representing districts that voted for the 2008 incarnation of Barack Obama, GOP senators may be feeling increasingly vulnerable as Walker's approval ratings drop and public support for public-sector union rights is more evident in polling.


National groups, including Democracy for America and Progressive Change Campaign Committee, are launching pro-union TV ads and pursuing the possibility of recall campaigns against Republican supporters of the bill. The recall campaigns and potential petition campaigns in Republican senate districts are viewed strategically by labor and progressives as a means of localizing the strength expressed in the massive demonstrations visible at the state capitol and in polling data.


Budget Repair


In the name of balancing the state's budget, Walker had proposed an innocently named "budget-repair" bill which included the anti-union provisions that would effectively knee-cap public unions in the same state where the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was founded in 1932 and where public workers were first granted the legal right to collectively bargain in 1959. But Walker's depiction of the state's budgetary situation was characterized by the Capital Times as a "manufactured crisis."


While Walker cited an estimated budget deficit of $137 million, the Capital Times and others pointed to a state fiscal agency's memo projecting a surplus of $55 million and noted that Walker in his first month in office had already granted a total of $140 million in corporate tax breaks and a new tax break for "health savings accounts," an option in practice open only to the wealthy. While these tax breaks would begin in the next fiscal year, their scale—almost identical to the budget deficit so alarming to Walker—suggests that union rights, not money, are Walker's driving concern. Surprisingly, even Fox News's Shepard Smith denounced Walker's budgetary concerns as "malarkey."


Walker's anti-union campaign is premised on the false but widespread notion that public workers are pampered and have much better pay and benefits than private-sector workers. Actually, public-sector workers in Wisconsin earn less than their private-sector counterparts according to several authoritative studies. The Economic Policy Institute found that where 59 percent of full-time public employees in Wisconsin earned a college degree, only 30 percent of private-sector workers have such a degree. State and local government workers with a bachelor's degree averaged $61,668 annually, compared with $82,134 for private-sector workers. Ignoring the critical education difference, USA Today recently trumpeted a flawed study declaring that public workers in 41 states, including Wisconsin, earned more than those in the private sector.


The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin's largest daily, has used its fact-checking PolitiFact Wisconsin column to falsely contend that public workers do not pay as large a share toward health and pension benefits as do private-sector workers. But as Free Lunch author David Cay Johnston wrote at, "Out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin's pension and health insurance plans for state workers, 100 cents comes from the state workers. How can that be?" asks Johnston. "Because the 'contributions' consist of money that employees chose to take as deferred wages—as pensions when they retire—rather than take immediately in cash. The same is true with the health care plan. If this were not so, a serious crime would be taking place, the gift of public funds rather than payment for services."


Walker's budget repair bill would prohibit public unions from bargaining on any issue except wages, limit contracts to one year, require them to be re-certified every year, block the union from collecting "agency fees" from workers whom they represent, end the dues check-off, and remove bargaining rights from University of Wisconsin faculty. Labor experts projected that under such rules, unions would wither within a year or two. As labor historian Steve Meyer of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee noted, "It goes further than anything since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947." Under this act, 21 states adopted "right-to-work" laws banning union shops, thus discouraging workers from joining unions. Says Meyer, "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."


Walker's bill also included higher healthcare insurance contributions from workers that would amount to a cut in take-home pay estimated at 6.8 percent to 11 percent.


Walker's Demands Backfire


Walker's economic demands essentially backfired when the major public unions, the 23,000-member Wisconsin State Employees Union and the Wisconsin Education Association Council representing 98,000 teachers and other school employees, agreed to the economic concessions but declared that their union rights were sacrosanct. Walker was left sputtering: "There is no room to compromise. We are broke." By refusing to take "Yes" for an answer, Walker's true motivation of destroying the public-sector unions, not seeking economic concessions, was unmasked.


Walker and the Republicans then shifted their ground, claiming that their entire package of proposals—especially the anti-union provisions—were needed to help local mayors, county executives, and school boards to hold the line on their budget: "To protect our schools, to protect our local governments, we need to give them the tools they've been asking for, not just for years but for decades." However, collective bargaining is not the cause of the fiscal troubles experienced in 41 states since the Great Recession hit and reduced tax revenues. As Professor Marc Levine of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee asserted, "Wisconsin isn't 'bankrupt' because public-sector unions here have the right to collective bargaining. There are 13 states with no collective bargaining rights for public workers; eight of them have larger budget shortfalls than does Wisconsin.


"In Texas, for example, a non-collective bargaining state whose low-tax, 'open for business' economic policies are vaunted by the right, the state's deficit as a percentage of the total budget is over twice that of Wisconsin's," noted Levine. Further, Wisconsin is untroubled by large unfunded pension and health-care benefits to retirees. Its long-term obligations are a fraction of most states and, among the five lowest in the U.S., a New York Times chart (2/27/11) showed.



Public opinion was likely to be even more incensed following the release of Walker's full budget March 1. "Education and local government bear the brunt of Governor Walker's first budget, a reform-minded plan that cuts about $1 billion in state aid and prevents officials from raising taxes to make up the difference," the Wisconsin State Journal reported. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel added, "Gov. Scott Walker vowed Tuesday to close a $3.5 billion budget gap by remolding Wisconsin government at every level: slashing aid to public schools and local governments while setting up increases in private school aid; eliminating 1,200 state jobs; and placing the tightest limits on property taxes that the state has seen. To balance the budget without raising taxes or fees, the Republican governor is calling for sacrifices and changes affecting residents across the state, from students and participants in the SeniorCare prescription drug plan to poor families receiving health care or welfare from the state."


Another blow to Wisconsin communities is the potential loss of millions of dollars in federal mass transit money flowing to municipal and regional bus systems. Federal rules require that transit sector employees are afforded collective bargaining rights, and thus Walker's plan could make it impossible for some cities to maintain bus service. This would strike particularly hard at the poor, the elderly, and people of color, who all tend not to own automobiles.


Walker's budget is thus a step toward radically re-shaping Wisconsin's mission as a state, abandoning the state's identity as "a laboratory for democracy" and innovator of reforms such as worker's compensation, unemployment compensation, and campaign finance reform. Instead, Walker appears intent on adopting the southern model, under which, as Patrik Jonsson of the Christian Science Monitor put it, "the focus is on creating a competitive place to locate businesses, so the premium is on investments in benefits for corporations and on keeping wages relatively low. Worker rights, social services, even education take a back seat to 'job creators' under this model—which critics denounce as a race to the bottom."


Embarrassing Moment


But Walker suffered a nationally embarrassing moment after Buffalo Beast blogger Ian Murphy spoofed him. Murphy had read that Walker was refusing to take calls from Democrats who wanted to discuss working out a settlement. So Murphy told Walker's staff that he was David Koch, the right-wing billionaire who, with his brother Charles, has provided funds both to Walker's campaign ($43,000 in direct contributions), and another $1 million to the Republican Governors Association that spent $3.4 million on negative ads against Walker's Democratic opponent last fall.


The Koch brothers, with a combined fortune of $37 billion, have also been active funders of Tea Party front groups like Americans for Prosperity and for many years a crucial force to advance a national campaign to essentially extinguish unionism as a force on the U.S. landscape, as Judith Davidoff described February 23 in the Capital Times. Koch Industries, the largest privately-held corporation in the U.S., has 3,000 employees in Wisconsin at facilities including a Georgia-Pacific toilet-paper plant, several power plants, and numerous pipelines. Interestingly, Walker's budget-repair bill would give the governor the power to sell state-owned power plants under no-bid procedures.


With Walker assuming that enormous clout was represented by the friendly voice on the other end of the phone line, the "David Koch" impersonator taped a 20-minute conversation with Walker. (Wisconsin Republican legislators are now seeking to ban such hoax phone calls.) During the call, Walker revealed a mentality far closer to Richard Nixon's "dirty tricks" than the Eagle Scout he was as a youth. When the pseudo-Koch proposed the idea of placing "troublemakers" among the protesters, Walker expressed no objections (no arrests have occurred as of March 3, despite over 300,000 demonstrators taking part in events at the capitol).


On the contrary, Walker admitted, "My only fear is if there's a ruckus caused that would scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has to settle to avoid all these problems." In essence, Walker feared that the sight of violence at the capitol would intensify public pressures for him "to settle" short of his personal goal of eradicating the unions. Walker again admitted that the introduction of "troublemakers" was discussed with Republican legislators—apparently to stir up disorder which would have discredited the protesters in the eyes of the public—on Fox's "Greta Van Susteren Show."


Walker, in his discussion with the Koch impersonator, also outlined his plans to "ratchet up" pressure on the public unions to cave in by mailing out layoff notices to hundreds of their members.


Late Developments


Walker and Republican loyalists further attempted to "ratchet up" the pressure on the 14 Democratic fugitives. In the Assembly, the Republicans cut off a 61-hour debate on the bill so abruptly that only 13 of 38 Democrats were able to vote. Afterwards, the Republicans took such steps as fining Democratic senators $100 for each day missed, denying Democratic legislative staffers access to duplicating machines, and attempting to close off access to the capitol building, an unprecedented step, until overturned by a judge on March 3. The sheriff of Dane County, in which Madison is located, refused to dispatch his deputies to participate in restricting access, declaring that his duties did not include providing a "palace guard." The judge's ruling overturned the state's restrictions on the capitol building, but ordered the building closed at night where hundreds of pro-union activists had been sleeping on the capitol's Italian marble floors. (The protesters had organized clean-up crews to gather litter and to provide access to the building's maintenance staff.)


Nevertheless, protests continued to draw thousands to the capitol, and protests were held in 19 communities in a single day. Increasingly, the attention of protesters is turning toward local districts to stir up challenges to Republicans standing against public-worker union rights.


With Walker's popularity plummeting, 65 percent of Wisconsinites expressed their desire for a compromise and some GOP senators were wavering. But rather than retreat to safer ground, Walker and Republican leaders instead decided to suddenly press the detonator and let the explosions rip across the state, damn the consequences.


On Wednesday, March 9 Republicans declared that the anti-union provisions were not a fiscal item and could therefore be voted on without the 20-vote quorum. To reconcile the State Senate version of the bill with the State Assembly's slightly different measure already passed, they suddenly called a conference committee meeting in which Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca's legal objections were ignored. State Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald simply spoke over Barca to obtain a majority and then quickly adjourned, in violation of the state's Open Meetings Law which requires at least 24 hours notice in almost all cases and two hours in exceptionally urgent cases; the GOP failed even to meet the two-hour requirement. The Senate instantly went into session and passed the anti-union provisions as a separate bill in an 18-to-1 vote.


Democratic State Senator Chris Larson declared that the Republicans' actions were consistent with their past conduct: "They shut down the public debate, they shut down the Assembly hearing, they shut down the phone line [the toll-free legislative hotline by which citizens can register their opinions with their legislators], and they closed down the Capitol building."


Following the vote, Walker issued a statement that declared victory, but also suggested his fundamental aim of re-shaping Wisconsin into a southern-style state where social needs (e.g., public education, healthcare, transportation, etc.) suffer dis-investment in order to subsidize private profit under the guise of job creation. He said, "In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government. The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs."


Thus, primary education (except for private "charter" schools that typically reject expensive-to-educate special-needs children who make up one-fifth of Milwaukee Public Schools), technical schools, the state universities, mass transit, and women's reproductive healthcare all face massive cuts in Walker's latest budget proposal. As in other states with new hard-line Republican governors, cuts in vital long-term social investments are coupled with corporate tax breaks. (Florida Gov. Rick Scott, the former disgraced HCA health-insurance executive, has proposed $1.7 billion in cuts to education and other social needs and $1.8 billion in tax cuts for corporations and the rich.)


The response to the Republicans' blitzkrieg was swift and massive. Thousands of protesters filled the capitol in Madison yelling "Shame, shame" at the Republican legislators. Plans began immediately for pressing them on a variety of fronts. For example, the State Supreme Court may very well wind up ruling on the constitutionality of both the anti-union legislation and the procedures used to ram it through. Also, union coordinators have already been planning the resumption of major protests, including one on Saturday, March 12, which included a "tractor-cade" of Midwest farmers siding with public employees.


Class War


The Wisconsin struggle has exemplified the long-term effort by corporations and the right wing to deflect attention away from the shrinkage of middle-class jobs in the U.S. and the growing concentration of wealth and income at the top, by instigating an intra-class war waged by private-sector workers against supposedly pampered public-sector workers. By ultimately destroying public-sector unions, the corporate/right wing alliance envisions removing any upward pressure on wages and working conditions in the U.S.


While the public has responded positively to the idea that public workers are entitled to collectively bargain, many citizens remain convinced of the myth that public workers are well compensated. Rather than looking upward at the stratospheric wealth being accumulated by the richest 1 percent, people are directed to focus on public workers' health and pension benefits. Given the misleading economic coverage in the corporate media, few citizens understand that the reason their property taxes are rising and their children's' tuition is soaring is because of corporate tax breaks.


Corporations receive about $70 billion in tax breaks and subsidies from the 50 states. Wisconsin is a particularly glaring example. The Institute for Wisconsin's Future (IWF) found that 62 percent of corporations with $100 million or more in revenue paid no corporate income taxes in 2002, the last year for which complete data was available. Similarly, the IWF also calculated that if Wisconsin corporations paid taxes at the average rate in the U.S., the state would take in an additional $1.3 billion in revenue annually.


The labor movement is now building on the struggle in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the peril to public workers over the past two decades should have provoked more extensive union efforts to educate the public. In the mid-1990s, for example, Labor Strategies Inc., a pro-union consulting group headed up by a former NFL players' union director, repeatedly tried to persuade public-employee unions to begin teaching their own members and the public about the state tax system.


Labor and progressives need to help re-frame the debate and also draw on public sentiment for taking progressive fiscal steps. First, the left needs to emphasize that with consumers unable to spend and corporations unwilling to invest, only government spending can unlock the economy's wheels and get it rolling again. Second, progressives have a strong reservoir of public support for sensible fiscal measures that are barely considered by leading Democrats or pundits. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows 81 percent support for taxing millionaires, 68 percent backing a rollback of the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and 76 percent in favor of cutting oil and gas tax breaks.


However, none of these ideas will command any attention unless labor engages in the kind of high-profile resistance first seen in Madison and spreading across the nation. To have any impact on the budget debate, such protests must not only make high-profile news in Washington, DC and state capitols, they also need to filter down to the district level where citizens can get a chance to understand how their representatives are re-shaping government to almost exclusively serve the rich, while denying them the necessities of life.


Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer, publicity consultant, and former editor of the Racine Labor Weekly.