The proposed budget bill that would strip collective bargaining rights from public employees in Wisconsin, and particularly the suggestion by Governor Scott Walker that he would send out the National Guard to quell protests over the action, has suddenly become a major political football in the state.
Walker and his conservative allies talked about this plan almost immediately after the election, getting support from southern-state Governors with right-to-work laws in place and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has stimulated discussion over this idea in several states since November. The bill would strip workers’ ability to bargain over everything but pay, and salary increases wouldn’t be allowed to increase more than inflation. Furthermore, public employees would have to pay more in health and pension costs, contracts would last only one year at a time, employees would have to re-certify the union annually and individual members would be able to withhold dues from their union. Such stripping of protections invariably leads to poor working conditions, as well as low wages and benefits. That’s why Walker put it into a budget bill.
Just now, three conservative Republicans in Wisconsin who happen to be public employees gave a conference call where they decried Walker’s effort. Bob Jahn, a highway employee from Green Lake and a “proud conservative,” called the plan an intrusion on individual rights which singles out public employees over other Wisconsin workers and goes against every core conservative principle there is. “I have disagreed with my union in the past,” Jahn said, “but I’ve never been more energized to go out and fight with public employees of this state.”
Brenda Kline, a food service worker from Green Bay, said she went to the polls last year to “protect our freedoms from government threat and to create jobs. I never dreamed that this would be the result.”
Janice Bobholz, a deputy sheriff in Dodge Country, called the right to collectively bargain “a freedom that many have died to protect.” Despite the fact that law enforcement personnel is exempt from many of the restrictions in the budget proposal, Bobholz said that “an attack on the rights of one American is an attack on the rights of all Americans.”
This is pretty strong language from Republicans, suggesting that Wisconsin may not be ready to turn into a right-to-work state for public employees overnight.
But it was the inference about the National Guard that has really sparked public attention. Citizen Action of Wisconsin says it all in their new campaign Not My Wisconsin, essentially painting Walker as the head of a police state. And VoteVets released a statement against the use of National Guard troops for a nakedly political purpose:
“Maybe the new governor doesn’t understand yet – but the National Guard is not his own personal intimidation force to be mobilized to quash political dissent,” said Robin Eckstein, a former Wisconsin National Guard member, Iraq War Veteran from Appleton, WI, and member of VoteVets.org. “The Guard is to be used in case of true emergencies and disasters, to help the people of Wisconsin, not to bully political opponents. Considering many veterans and Guard members are union members, it’s even more inappropriate to use the Guard in this way. This is a very dangerous line the Governor is about to cross.”
According to news reports last week and over the weekend, Governor Walker threatened to mobilize the Wisconsin National Guard to keep any state workers from protesting anti-worker, anti-union proposals he is pushing through the legislature. Included in that proposal is a plan to enact so-called “Right to Work” laws, which would weaken state unions’ ability to negotiate.
The combination of the rhetoric against big government takeovers of collective bargaining and other individual rights, and the use of state militia to enforce the extreme ideological stand, has Republican lawmakers in the state worried. First Read looks at the legislative vote:
So could it pass the state legislature? While the Republicans have a commanding 57-38 majority (plus one Independent) in the Wisconsin house, they have a much narrower 19-14 majority in the state Senate. The Senate majority leader says he doesn’t know when the chamber will take it up, effectively acknowledging he doesn’t have the votes yet. Four Republicans were quoted in the Journal-Sentinel saying they weren’t ready to commit to support the legislation and another four Republicans whose districts have lots of state workers wouldn’t return phone calls.
Walker’s office claims that the invocation of the National Guard was specifically in reference to state prisons, and how the Guard would step in to take control of them in the event of a “blue flu” walkout by corrections officers. But the effort at intimidation was actually pretty clear. With even some of the exempt union members lining up in opposition to this attack on labor rights, Walker may have to back down.