The Word From Madison, Wisconsin

Alex Altman at Swampland at Time:

Thousands of Wisconsin’s union workers and supporters crowded into the state capitol in Madison for a second day to protest a bill that would strip key collective-bargaining rights from public employees. The measure, introduced last Friday by new Republican Governor Scott Walker, would take away public-worker unions’ ability to negotiate pensions, working conditions and benefits. State and local workers would have to foot more of the cost for their pensions–around 5.8 %–and more than twice that percentage of their health-care costs. Nearly all public workers–the bill exempts police, firefighters and state troopers–would be able to bargain only for salary, and any wage increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index. (Raises beyond that capped figure would require a special referendum.) With Republicans now in control of the state legislature after November’s electoral victory, the measure is expected to pass as early as tomorrow. You can read the statehouse’s summary of the bill here.

There’s no question Wisconsin has a deficit problem. The state has a short-term budget shortfall of $137 million, and over the next two years the deficit balloons to more than $3.6 billion. Walker says the “budget repair bill” would save some $30 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and $300 million during the following two. “I’m just trying to balance my budget,” Walker told the New York Times. “To those who say why didn’t I negotiate on this? I don’t have anything to negotiate with. We don’t have anything to give. Like practically every other state in the country, we’re broke. And it’s time to pay up.” He says the measure will help avoid up to 6,000 layoffs.

The measure has infuriated the state’s 175,000 public-sector employees, who say they’re being scapegoated by a governor whose party has no love for unions.Other newly installed Republican governors, from Florida’s Rick Scott to Ohio’s John Kasich, have zeroed in on cutting state-employee rolls and rights as a way to close sagging budget gaps. But Walker’s plan, which guts entrenched rights, is perhaps the most dramatic. “It is up to us to fight for the right of workers to have a collective voice on the job,” said Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Phil Neuenfeldt. “This proposal is too extreme.”

David Vines at Huffington Post:
For the last two days, protestors have been marching on the Wisconsin State Capitol, protesting Governor Scott Walker’s new union-busting budget proposal. Last night, a public forum was held and protesters got a chance to speak inside the Capitol to let their voices be heard. As of early Wednesday morning, citizens are still speaking to the Joint Finance Committee in the Capitol.

Scroll Down For Latest Updates.

*All times are Central Standard Time

Tuesday, February 15, 10:42 PM: Thousands of demonstrators are inside the Capitol, demanding a chance to speak in an open forum. Officials have been allowing citizens to sign up on a list, but are debating closing down the list due to overcrowding and public safety reasons. Video here.

11:20 PM: I conducted interviews with three members of the University of Wisconsin community, which can all be seen below.

“I’m worried about the future,” Jason Kempe, a Spanish teaching assistant, told me. “I don’t have a problem with losing, but I do have a problem with abolishing the ability to negotiate,” he said. Watch the full interview here.

Then I spoke with Chris McKim, a recent UW graduate who recently spent time abroad in Nepal. “Where I was living in Nepal, they are coming out of 15 years of civil war over very basic human rights, one of them the right to peacefully assemble and collectively bargain in unions,” McKim said. “To see something like that stripped from us here at home, it’s horrifying.” Watch the full interview here.

“We want our professors to be the best and we want our TA’s to be the best,” said Meghan Ford, an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin. “They work extremely hard and to take away their pay like this is a basic violation of human rights, not just worker’s rights.” Watch the full interview here.

Wednesday, February 16, 12:22 AM: It’s past midnight here but the crowd has not thinned out much.

I just talked to Leif Brottem, a sixth-year PHD student and research assistant at UW-Madison. “Taking away health insurance and taking away bargaining rights of the union really… it’s going to negatively effect the university’s ability to attract students which are the lifeblood of the university.” Watch the full interview here.

Then, I interviewed Zachary DeQuattro, a TAA member and Zoology teaching assistant at UW-Madison. “I’m here tonight in support of my wife whose a Madison school teacher, and in support of myself and other graduate students,” DeQuattro told me. He said of the proposed bill, “It’s really the start of losing the whole union setup. The union will be eaten up trying to re-certify every year and it’s just a real shame.” Watch the full interview here.

12:51 AM: Just got word from a student upstairs that this hearing will likely go on all night. The Republicans may leave at 2:00 when they initially anticipated the forum to end, but I’m hearing that this will go on all night.

2:00 AM: It is officially 2:00 AM and the forum is still going strong. I’m with a few hundred people in the atrium of the building, some of whom are fast asleep.

2:02 AM: All of the lights went off for about 10 seconds, which was met with cheers from some of the people gathered here, but they were promptly turned back on. “Maybe someone just leaned on the light switch,” a friend of mine joked.

Choire Sicha at The Awl:

Just in case you’re busy tracking unrest in Bahrain or elsewhere around the globe, you should also know that Wisconsin’s capitol is still actually totally occupied, due to its governor being an enemy of working people everywhere. Live coverage here and here.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo:

Over the last few days we’ve had a growing number of emails from readers saying what’s happening now in Wisconsin is important and we should be on it. As you can see from our current feature, we agree. And we are on it. So I wanted to take a moment to explain just why I think this is so important.

On one level, this is just a meaty news story. The newly-inaugurated right-wing Governor of Wisconsin is using the state’s budget crisis to drastically change the rights of union organizing in the state. He’s even added the weird and bizarre touch of proactively hinting that he might call out the state National Guard to calm any labor unrest. The key point is that Gov. Walker is going well beyond cross-government retrenchment to making wholesale changes to rights to collective bargaining. In response, labor and its progressive allies are mobilizing in a huge way to counter the effort. [Click here to see our slideshow of what’s happening on the ground in the state capitol today.] The Governor excludes police and firefighters from the changes to the labor laws. But at least the firefighters in the state seem to be standing with other public sector union members in what’s turning into a huge public battle.

That in itself would make it a story we’d want to be all over. But it’s quite a bit more than that. Whichever side of the policy issue you’re on, I think the outcome of this situation is going to have ramifications across the country. Republicans came out of the 2010 election pumped up and feeling that they had a huge mandate to fundamentally change government in this country. I don’t think the elections really told us that at all. But these things are decided by results post-election not by analysis of the election returns. And that’s what’s being determined right now.

Ann Althouse:

I said imagine how Democrats would react if Tea Partiers had a demonstration like that — replete with misspelled signs and signs depicting a Democratic Party politician as Hitler or with his head in a noose.

The fact is that the Republicans decisively won the governorship and both houses of the state legislature — probably with next to no votes from the people who came to the demonstration. If you’re asking — like Shilling — for the Republican legislators to listen to democracy, they should look at the last election, the people all over the state who voted for them and, presumably, for fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice.

The people around the state were probably at their jobs yesterday, not able to travel here, into the heart of the state’s liberal politics, to do a counter-demonstration and show their numbers (the numbers recorded last October at the polls). Did the demonstrators — many of whom were teachers — try to speak to those people or did they mostly look inward, at each other, pumping up their own resolve?

What are the people around the state supposed to think of them — teachers who have pretty nice jobs and who decided they could go somewhere else for the day instead? What did those teachers teach? I didn’t notice any of them trying to speak to the people of the state, trying to win anyone over. In fact, there were chants — simple, repeated words that don’t try to explain and persuade — and ugly signs full of name-calling and violence. There were plenty of nice people too and gentle signs, but the nice to ugly ratio was worse than at the Tea Party rallies I’ve seen, and Democrats aimed such contempt at the Tea Partiers. Why should the Tea Party-type people of the state be impressed by the other side’s crowds?

Eric Lach at Talking Points Memo:

Speaking on Morning Joe Thursday morning, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) compared the current situation in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker (R) has inspired days of protests by proposing a budget that would remove key bargaining powers for public employee unions, to the recent unrest in Egypt that toppled the 30-year authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak, saying it’s “like Cairo has moved to Madison these days.”

Host Mika Brzezinski asked Ryan what he made of the protests and Walker’s “stand.”

“He is basically saying, state workers, which have extremely generous benefit packages relative to their private sector counterparts, they contribute next to nothing to their pensions, very, very little in their health care packages,” Ryan responded “He’s asking that they contribute about 12% for their health care premiums, which is about half of the private sector average, and about 5.6% to their pensions. It’s not asking a lot, it’s still about half of what private sector pensions do and health care packages do. So he’s basically saying, I want you public workers to pay half of what our private sector counterparts are, and he’s getting, you know, riots. It’s like Cairo has moved to Madison these days. It’s just, all of this demonstration. It’s fine, people should be able to express their way, but we’ve got to get this deficit and debt under control in Madison, if we want to have a good business climate and job creation in Wisconsin.”

Ryan then seemed to compare what’s happening in his state to anti-austerity protests that took place in Europe last year.

Ben Smith at Politico:

The Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America arm — the remnant of the 2008 Obama campaign — is playing an active role in organizing protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to strip most public employees of collective bargaining rights.

OfA, as the campaign group is known, has been criticized at times for staying out of local issues like same-sex marraige, but it’s riding to the aide of the public sector unions who hoping to persuade some Republican legislators to oppose Walker’s plan. And while Obama may have his difference with teachers unions, OfA’s engagement with the fight — and Obama’s own clear stance against Walker — mean that he’s remaining loyal to key Democratic Party allies at what is, for them, a very dangerous moment.

OfA Wisconsin’s field efforts include filling buses and building turnout for the rallies this week in Madison, organizing 15 rapid response phone banks urging supporters to call their state legislators, and working on planning and producing rallies, a Democratic Party official in Washington said.

The @OFA_WI twitter account has published 54 tweets promoting the rallies, which the group has also plugged on its blog.

“At a time when most folks are still struggling to get back on their feet, Gov. Walker has asked the state legislature to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Under his plan, park rangers, teachers, and prison guards would no longer be able to fight back if the new Republican majority tries to slash their health benefits or pensions,” OfA Wisconsin State Director Dan Grandone wrote supporters in an email. “But that’s not even the most shocking part: The governor has also put the state National Guard on alert in case of ‘labor unrest.’ We can’t — and won’t — let Scott Walker’s heavy-handed tactics scare us. This Tuesday and Wednesday, February 15th and 16th, volunteers will be attending rallies at the state

Wis Politics:

In protest of the budget repair bill that will strip public union workers of almost all of their collective bargaining rights, Senate Democrats have walked away from a floor session.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Dems are refusing to come to the floor to debate and vote on the bill.

Fitzgerald said at some point, if needed, Republicans will use the State Patrol to round up Democrats to bring them to the floor. The bill passed the Joint Finance Committee on a partisan 12-4 vote Wednesday night and was due to be taken up by the Senate today.

During last night’s debate on the repair bill, Republicans on the JFC amended the bill to remove a provision stripping pension and health benefits from limited term employees.

The GOP amendment will also mandate local governments offer civil service protections to public employees similar to those state employees receive. Democrats on the committee, unsatisfied with what they felt were insignificant changes, voted against the amendment.

“We have to continue to fight,” Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, said. “This is one battle in the war.”

Republican leaders expected it to pass through the Legislature unchanged except for the amendment added in the JFC.

A few audience members broke down in tears as the committee moved toward a vote.

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1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Legislation Pending

One response to “The Word From Madison, Wisconsin

  1. I could never understand individuals, working in the public sector, have the right and control to tell their employer how to run the business and at what price. Show me where in the constitution this is a right.
    The only right they have, is the same one I have in the private sector, go and get another job, where you will be paid what your worth.

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