US capital has won a major battle in the war against labour in the state of Wisconsin. A bill to bust the power of the state’s public workers unions was set for approval on Thursday US time after Republicans lawmakers pulled a fast one. With Democrats deliberately out of the state, the Republican could not get a quorum to pass a budget bill. So what they have done is strip references to the budget from the bill, which allowed it to pass without the legislative quorum required for fiscal measures. The State’s Republican Governor Scott Walker said passing the bill will give them the tools to reward productive workers and improve their operations. Unions disagree and have maintained large protests in the capital for three and a half weeks. (Photo of rally at Wisconsin Capitol by WxMom)
Wisconsin is not unlike many government agencies across the world running at a loss, enduring a $3.6 billion budget shortfall for 2011. Walker wants to solve the problem by getting public sector workers to reduce their salary and give away their collective bargaining rights through legislation. NBC’s John Bailey is expecting to blow out to $1.3 billion by 2013 blaming falling tax revenues for the blowout allied to rising unemployment putting pressure on the public purse. Tax cuts since 2003 have accumulated to $3.7 billion in lost income, though it is harder to estimate whether they have had positive effect. Walker was keener to balance the books with cuts rather than taxes. He claimed the alternative was worse: laying off 6,000 state workers, and taking away Medicaid coverage for hundreds of thousands of children.
The unions responded by agreeing to the pay cuts but refusing to give away their rights. Walker said that wouldn’t work for the organisations that get their funding from the state. Collective bargaining, he said, stood in the way of local governments and school districts being able to balance their budget. "My goal all along has been to give these folks tools to control their own budgets. You've got to give them some flexibility."
Wisconsin is normally a safe pro-labour state that has voted Democrat in the last six presidential elections. But it swung viciously to the Republicans in the 2010 midterms as the recession shattered consumer confidence. The GOP won a Senate seat and control of the House of Reps. They also gained the governorship as Scott Walker ended a Democrat eight year reign after Governor Jim Doyle retired.
Doyle’s replacement is a typical fiscal conservative Republican who is pro-life, anti-big-government, tough-on-crime, and pro welfare reform. During his election, Walker campaigned on business tax cuts to promote growth. He said he would pay for this by cutting public sector pay. His opponent Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett attempted to portray Walker as an extremist due to his moral positions but the electorate were in a mood to punish the Democrats with Walker winning 52-48. Walker took office on new year’s day and immediately got to work on his plan. He approved new tax cuts in January which he called “a bold statement that Wisconsin is a more welcoming place for businesses.”
On Valentine’s Day, Walker made another bold statement when he romanced the Committee on Senate organisation to introduce a budget repair bill known as Senate Bill 11. The bill requires state workers pay additional direct pension and health insurance contributions and removes collective bargaining rights except for wages, which is limited to CPI.
The budget repair bill also included provisions to empower the state to sell government infrastructure on a no-bid basis without Public Service Commission oversight. Koch Industries, a major contributor to Walker’s election campaign are the likely beneficiaries of this looser arrangement and could potentially snap up Wisconsin power plants at bargain basement prices.
Union leaders began pressing lawmakers to reject the idea. This was personal – Wisconsin was the first state to provide collective bargaining rights to public employees over 50 years ago in 1959. Rallies started in the state capital Madison on the same day the legislated was released, 14 February. Within three days, they were getting 70,000 and visits from Jesse Jackson. There was serious talk the protests would energise the Democrat base. On 20 February they occupied the Capitol. By 3 March police were opening fire outside the building.
Walker threatened to get the National Guard out to “handle state duties”. However other state duties are proving less important with the Governor also saying he would also dismiss 1,500 workers this week if the billed is not passed soon. Democrats have taken evasive action to delay it. Minority leader Mark Miller and his colleagues crossed into Illinois to avoid taking part in a vote. Until they return, there is no quorum and the measure cannot be passed.
In revenge, the Republicans suspended direct debit payments forcing them to pick up pay cheques in person. They have been docked $100 for every day they stay away, their parking spaces have been seized and their secretaries fired. A blogger named Buffalo Beast pretending to be David Koch caught Walker out into admitted he was ratcheting up his actions every day.
While Walker made his demands, unions protested in ever larger numbers in a direct echo of events in North Africa - echoes of “Mubarak of the West” played down in American media but not in the Guardian or Herald Scotland. Meanwhile Michael Moore has urged others to join in saying it was a lie to saying Wisconsin is broke. “The truth is, there's lots of money to go around,” Moore said. “It's just that those in charge have diverted that wealth into a deep well that sits on their well-guarded estates.”