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Wisconsin Pits Budget Cutting Versus Collective Bargaining

Governor Scott Walker is determined to cut the Wisconsin budget and curb union power. The beleaguered unions are determined to resist.
First Publish: 2/20/2011, 11:34 AM / Last Update: 2/20/2011, 12:56 PM

In the American federal system, states have frequently been bellwethers for national change. Among the states fulfilling this role, Wisconsin, one of the homes of the progressive movement, is near the top of the list. History may be repeating itself as two Wisconsin Republicans -Governor Scott Walker and Representative Paul Ryan - are in the forefront of the Republican effort to cut the budget and cut the deficit both statewide and nationally.

If the government in Washington shuts down because Congress and the administration fail to agree upon the budget, then Paul Ryan will be one of the top of the personalities in the news. Currently the spotlight is on Governor Scott Walker because of his efforts to erode the power of public-sector unions who constitute a mainstay of the Democratic Party.

Walker campaigned last year with a promise to get Wisconsin's house in order and he beat his Democratic opponent by 6%. In elections for the legislative branch.  Voters transformed a sizable Democratic majority into an equally sizable Republican majority.

Walker wants the unions to contribute more to their retirement benefits. He would also limit their collective bargaining rights exclusively to wages and even then, only in order to keep pace with inflation. The Republicans claim that powerful unions representing state employees have pressured the government into generous salary and benefit packages that the states cannot afford. As the US industrial base has declined, the number of unionized workers in the private sector is much lower than the percentage in the public sector, and therefore the latter form the heart of the trade union movement.

To prevent the law from being passed, Democratic members of the legislature skipped town and took refuge in neighboring Illinois. That kept the legislature from convening and passing Walker's bill due to the lack of a quorum. Additionally, union members from Wisconsin and beyond converged on Wisconsin's capital of Madison to surround public buildings in an effort to block the bill.

Walker termed such action unconscionable "I've been hard at work all day, started early this morning working. I'll be here all day working and I'll be here tonight working in the job I'm paid to do… just like the some 300,000 state and local workers who work hard each and every day who showed up to work hard today in their jobs. I continue to work, and I'm calling on the members of the state Senate to show up and do the job they're paid to do as well."

A "sickness epidemic" suddenly struck Wisconsin teachers forcing schools to close down.  Doctors sympathetic to the teachers promised to supply them with the needed sick notes to back their struggle.

The fight has national, precedent setting dimensions. Conservative groups and, most notably, the Tea Party have staged counterdemonstrations while Scott Walker has received backing from 2 Republican presidential hopefuls: Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. 

Huckabee connected the Obama administration and the unions: "This is a president who would not be sitting in that office were it not for public sector unions who rallied for him in a significant way."

House Speaker John Boehner called out President Obama's “allies," for backing “Greece-style” protests in Madison, Wis."When the American people watched the people of Greece take to the streets to protest cuts to unsustainable government programs, they worried it might foreshadow events in our nation’s distant future, but today, we see the same sort of protests on the streets of Madison, fueled by President Obama’s own political machine."

Democrats led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi fired back and declared their "solidarity” with state public employees in Wisconsin who were “fighting for their rights.” 

The calls for greater civility engendered by the recent Tucson shooting were quickly forgotten as demonstrators paraded through the streets carrying signs with messages like “Hitler Outlawed Unions, Too!"” “Hosni + Hitler = Dictator Scott Walker” and an image of Walker with a Hitler mustache and a swastika.  

Tea Party supporters retaliated with signssaying "Your Gravy Train Is Over … Welcome to the Recession" and "Sorry, we're late, Scott. We work for a living."