On Friday, February 11, Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced a “budget repair bill” which he intended to be approved by the state legislature by the following Thursday. Massive organized union response to this bill surprised him and denied him his wish.
Along with demanding financial concessions from public employee unions in the state, the bill included shocking provisions to eliminate all collective bargaining rights for almost all 300,000 public employees, with the exception of limited bargaining over wages. Off the table would be any negotiations over benefits, safety, grievance procedures, working conditions or any other issue currently covered in public employee contracts. Because of a Republican majority in the state legislature, Walker expected this proposal to be smooth sailing for him, just as he’s been able to quickly push through other anti-worker, pro-corporate, and anti-environmental measures in his less than two months in office.
But Wisconsin workers stopped him. They responded in unprecedented numbers to the call by union leaders for demonstrations at the state capitol in Madison. The numbers grew each day last week, peaking at some 70,000 on Saturday, which included a very insignificant number of tea party members. The gatherings have been loud and lively, with a strong party atmosphere. And it was Friday when teachers arrived in large numbers that the signs in the crowd became very creative: “If you can read this, thank a teacher”, “100% of teachers have more education than Walker” (he never finished his Bachelor’s degree), “We will not be bullied”, “This is what democracy looks like”, and “Walker, be like Palin and quit”.
Teachers in Madison, Milwaukee and many other areas had launched “sick-ins”, which shut down entire districts and brought teachers en masse to the capitol, including retired teachers, who are able to put this fight into perspective for the many younger people who are participating. For example, it was through a bitter 1969 strike at Milwaukee Area Technical College, whose faculty and staff are represented by AFT Local 212, that collective bargaining rights were won.
But Walker made his real objective known late in the week when two of the largest unions involved agreed to the financial provisions of his bill, and said they will cooperate with his changes to their health care and pension contributions, but that they will never agree to give up the right to collectively bargain. WALKER REFUSED THIS OFFER. This simply confirmed for all his real goal: to break the unions.
We here in Wisconsin are very proud of our labor history. Wisconsin was the first state to guarantee collective bargaining rights for public employees, as well as the first to enact Workers Compensation, and to put an unemployment insurance law into effect. We intend to continue that bold progressive tradition.
The situation is changing daily, even hourly. At this writing (Mon. Feb 21), the 14 Democratic state Senators are still out of state, having left on Thursday to avoid the Senate achieving a quorum to take a vote on the bill. We appreciate their courage in taking this bold move. Mobilization continues, including large protests and lobbying of individual legislators.
This experience has truly brought people together. We are connecting with each other and working together to defend our democratic rights, and we will be ready for the next battle as well. And for that, Scott Walker, we thank you! [Joanne Shansky; Photos by Phyllis Holder]