First Posted: 02/16/11 11:41 AM Updated: 02/20/11 04:56 PM
WASHINGTON — Public employees around the country have become the nation’s scapegoats for the rough economy, with many Republican politicians in recent months criticizing them as privileged, overpaid and underworked — unlike their private sector counterparts. But in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) is now in hot water, facing an overwhelming backlash from the state’s residents.
Wisconsin is facing a $137 million budget deficit. In order to close it, Walker wants to sharply curtail the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions, effectively preventing them from negotiating benefits, hours and working conditions. (They would, however, still be able to bargain over base wages, and Walker decided to exempt firefighters and police workers from his measure.) Public workers would also have to contribute more money toward pension and health insurance plans.
What has attracted the most attention is Walker’s threat to call out the National Guard in order to respond to a walk-out or any resistance to his plan.
The governor has insisted that he’s not targeting public employees.
“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.” The Huffington Post was unable to get a comment from him on Wednesday.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin has said that Walker’s plan will save Wisconsin $30 million over the next three months and $300 million over the next two years.
But some questioned whether his proposal is really financially necessary. The governor himself claims that Wisconsin can save $165 million by the end of next June simply by restructuring existing debt. Additionally, the share of corporate tax revenue funding the state government has fallen by half since 1981 and, according to Wisconsin Department of Revenue, two-thirds of corporations pay no taxes.
“I don’t think there’s any question that what Gov. Walker is trying to do here is not simply outrageous — one of the worst things I’ve ever seen a Wisconsin governor do — but he’s just acting on a long-time corporate wish: the fantasy of destroying unions,” former Wisconsin Democratic senator Russ Feingold told The Huffington Post in an interview on Tuesday. Feingold is launching a new political action committee called Progressives United, aimed at combating the influence of corporate power in politics.
Calling Walker’s actions “big government at its worst,” Feingold said that Republicans are trying to pit private workers against their public counterparts.
“This is an attempt to divide and conquer,” he added. “What they did is tee up the rhetoric in the last few years about how public employees — the notion is that somehow they’re making huge amounts of money and they don’t have to work very hard, and they’re doing fine because their jobs and pensions are guaranteed while people in the private sector are suffering. Surely, there is enormous reason for people in the private sector to be frustrated — and particularly working people who have had their jobs shipped overseas by trade agreements that have been backed by these big corporate interests that are benefiting from Citizens United. But the idea here on the right and the corporate side is to divide working people against each other, to turn private employees against public employees out of some kind of resentment.”
Thousands of Wisconsin residents have showed up for rallies in Madison, with hundreds of Wisconsin residents signed up to testify on Tuesday against Walker’s plan. Many of them ended up rolling out sleeping bags and sleeping in the building’s rotunda overnight. With a GOP legislature on his side, Walker could get a vote as soon as Thursday. On Tuesday, the Republican co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee helped speed along the process by preventing a “citizen filibuster” and limiting the amount of time that residents had to speak, prompting protests from the people who were shut out of hearing without being heard.
On Monday, hundreds of University of Wisconsin-Madison students and professors showed up at the state Capitol chanting “kill this bill” and carrying signs with messages such as “From Cairo to Madison Workers Unite.” They also delivered valentines to Walker, asking him not to break their hearts. Rallies are expected to continue all week.
Opposition to Walker’s proposal has come not only from unions, but also veterans organizations and even the Green Bay Packers.
“As a publicly owned team we wouldn’t have been able to win the Super Bowl without the support of our fans,” wrote current and former members of the Packers in a statement. “It is the same dedication of our public workers every day that makes Wisconsin run. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. But now in an unprecedented political attack Governor Walker is trying to take away their right to have a voice and bargain at work.”
There are roughly 175,000 public sector employees with union representation in Wisconsin. Of those, 39,000 are state employees and 106,000 are teachers.