The protests that began on February 14 in Madison, Wisconsin against an anti-union bill have continued to grow. On February 26, an estimated 100,000 people defied sub-zero temperatures to rally against the bill.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s bill would outlaw collective bargaining for public sector workers, as well as slash pay and conditions.
However, several events have combined to compound pressure on public sector workers and unions resisting the attacks. It remains to be seen whether this pressure will result in the proposed bill becoming law.
One twist in Wisconsin’s ongoing saga was reported by Lindsey Boerma from Nationaljournal.com on March 3. She said Wisconsin’s Republican senators passed a resolution “ordering police to take their 14 Democratic colleagues who fled the state two weeks ago” into custody.
All 14 Democratic senators in Wisconsin fled the state to deny the state legislature quorum in a bid to stop the bill being passed.
Threatened by Walker with being kidnapped by police and dragged to the legislature, the senators went into hiding on February 17.
Boerma said “state lawmakers voted to impose a $100-a-day fine on the runaway senators”. Boerma reported Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald justified the fines by saying the Democrats “have pushed us to the edge of a constitutional crisis”.
The resolution came as a Wisconsin judge ruled in favour of removing protesters that have been occupying the state’s capitol building, which houses the legislature.
Workers, students and supporters have occupied the building, day and night, since February 14.
HuffingtonPost.com said on March 3: “Dane County Circuit Judge John Albert ruled … that protesters remaining in the [state capitol] building should be immediately removed.”
Raising the stakes even further, Walker has issued layoff warnings to public sector workers. The March 3 New York Times said Walker will “begin issuing layoff warnings to unions representing 1,500 state employees on Friday [March 4].”
Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, told HuffingtonPost.com on February 28 that “more than 2000 teachers had received non-renewal notices as of Monday”.
Bell said: “All of this turmoil, all of this chaos, are examples that Walker’s proposals are too extreme.”
The details of Walker’s budget-cutting measures were officially announced on March 1 in a full budget speech. A March 2 NYT editorial said Walker’s proposed budget “would cut aid to school districts and local governments by nearly $1 billion over two years”.
In a statement to the media, state superintendent Tony Evers made plain the consequences of Walker’s proposed budget-repair bill. Evers told HuffingtonPost.com that “when you make unprecedented and historic cuts like these to schools, it means teachers are laid off, class sizes are larger, course offerings are reduced … and whole parts of what we value in our schools are gone”.
Widespread anger against Walker’s proposals is fuelled by the fact that the governor handed corporations a US$140 million tax break in January, while using the state’s deficit to justify the anti-worker measures.
One of Wisconsin’s self-exiled Democratic senators, Jon Erpenbach, told the February 28 New York Times that Walker was not telling the whole truth.
Erpenbach said: “He’s not being honest. Piece by piece, public employees will be shown the door and then replaced by private contractors with no accountability … These are the first steps he needs to take to privatise the state.”
HuffingtonPost.com said on March 3 that anti-union measures proposed in Wisconsin were being repeated in Ohio.
The article said: “The bargaining rights of public workers in Ohio would be dramatically reduced and strikes would be banned under a bill narrowly passed by the state senate.”
The law means unions would no longer be able to negotiate health care, sick time or pension benefits. It also does away with automatic pay rises.
Democratic Senator Edna Brown told HuffingtonPost.com: “This bill tilts the balance of power toward management and does not give one new right to employees.”
A series of copycat bills have been proposed in states across the US. No less than 12 states have proposed similar bills to the one that has sparked a huge struggle by workers in Wisconsin, Nationaljournal.com said.
The bills would severely limit the ability of workers to collectively bargain. They would also largely place the burden of reversing budget deficits on working people.
Two major polls have illustrated the lack of popular support for these measures.
The NYT and CBS News conducted the first poll from February 24 to 27.
The NYT said on February 28: “Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent.”
More than half of those surveyed, 56%, said they “opposed cutting the pay or benefits of public employees to reduce deficits”.
The NYT said “those polled preferred tax increases over benefit cuts for state workers by nearly two to one”.
The Wall Street Journal and NBC News conducted the second poll from February 24 to 28. This poll focused on broader, national economic questions.
However, the sentiments expressed aligned with the results of the NYT/CBS News poll.
The WSJ said on May 3: “Less than a quarter of Americans support making significant cuts to Social Security or Medicare to tackle the country’s mounting deficit.”
The WSJ said this result illustrates “the challenge facing lawmakers who want voter buy-in to alter entitlement programs”.
The article said: “More than seven in 10 tea party backers feared GOP [Republican] lawmakers would not go far enough in cutting spending. But at the same time, more than half of all Americans feared Republicans would go too far.”
The results of both polls suggest that the public outcry and protests in Wisconsin cannot be dismissed as simply a unilateral response by unions. Instead, the polls indicate large-scale opposition to the so-called budget repair.
Julia Edwards and Kevin Brennan, in a March 2 Nationaljournal.com article, compared the spread of dissent from Wisconsin to the spread of revolutionary unrest in North Africa and the Middle East.
They wrote: “2011 is the year of protest — both foreign and domestic.”
Describing the spread of protests from Wisconsin to other states like Ohio, Nevada, Indiana and New Jersey, Edwards and Brennan said Wisconsin “may wind up as the Egypt of the Midwest”.
How the struggle on the streets of Wisconsin plays out remains to be seen. One thing is certain though, US workers have rediscovered their voice.
Democracy Now! report on the 100,000-strong protest
Madison, February 26.