By Kim Scipes
Tens of thousands of people surrounding the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin for days; Democratic legislators leaving the state and hiding out; unions upset: what is going on in Wisconsin?
Wisconsin has a budget crisis, and the Republican Governor, Scott Walker, wants to make public sector union members pay more for their health care and pension costs. But, much more importantly, Governor Walker also wants to basically gut public sector unions’ collective bargaining rights—and he has the Republican votes in both the Assembly and the Senate to get his way, once he has a quorum.
The problem for Walker is that he has 19 Republicans in the Senate—and needs 20 for a quorum. The Democrats, so far, have refused to give him his quorum, disappearing over the land (and presumably over state borders!). As long as the Senate Democrats stay away, Walker is stymied. Tens of thousands have mobilized around the state to try to convince the governor to change his mind.
The key thing to realize here is that the issue is NOT about the budget—Walker himself helped create much of the $137 million deficit by cutting business taxes $134 million! Strangely enough, raising taxes on corporations to cover state budget deficits is never on the table—Wisconsin’s corporate tax rate hasn’t been raised since 1972.
In what is an obvious, coordinated attack, Republican governors in states including Indiana and Ohio have launched attacks on the collective bargaining rights of unions representing school bus drivers, public health care workers, teachers, etc. This is especially pernicious because both houses of these states’ legislatures are controlled by Republicans. This has been coupled with legislative efforts to pass “Right to Work” laws in a number of other states, which, ostensibly to help workers, in reality only undercut unions.
What we are seeing is a full-powered attempt to weaken unions, and their ability to represent their members. Yes, this is an attack on wages, benefits and working conditions that have been previously negotiated, but more importantly, these attacks are intended to do away with negotiation processes entirely.
There are two reasons for this. The first, as is well known, is that unions usually contribute substantial amounts of monies to Democratic politicians. More importantly, however, is the hours of volunteer labor union members contribute—whether phone banking or going door-to-door for endorsed candidates. Labor still has a strong electoral impact on elections. Destroying these forces can only help the Republicans.
More importantly, however, is the role that unions play in our larger society. While there are a number of problems plaguing the labor movement, the fact remains that unions are the ONLY institutions in US society that even potentially represent the interests and well-being of working people, both in the workplace and the larger society. In fact, their importance is even greater today, as unlimited amounts of political donations make our government “the best money can buy”—and the labor movement is the only institution between plutocracy and (popular) democracy.
Unions oftentimes don’t assert themselves in this position, but when members can motivate them to do so, unions CAN fulfill this important role.
In face of the Governor Walker’s intransigence, the question on the table is what next? Will Walker get his way? Will the unions prevail? Or, in face of Walker’s ideological assault on unions, will union members force their leaders into backing their demands by escalating their actions…. Stay tuned!
Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN. A long-time labor activist, he is the author of AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lexington Books, 2010).