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2011-02-15

Wisconsin Governor Launches Attack on Public Sector Employees and Unions; Threatens to Deploy National Guard to Quell Labor Protests

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Recently elected Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed a bill that would eliminate almost all collective bargaining rights for most public workers and slash their pay and benefits. Walker has also notified the state’s National Guard to be on alert for actions taken by unsatisfied state, county and municipal employees. On Monday, hundreds of protesters marched on the State Capitol in Madison, with more protests being planned. Joining us from Madison is John Nichols of The Nation magazine and Brad Lutes, a Wisconsin public school teacher. Nichols warns the governor’s actions could have national ramifications: “If Governor Walker pulls this off, if he succeeds in taking away collective bargaining rights from the union, AFSCME, which was founded in Wisconsin back in the 1930s, if he takes down one of the strongest and most effective teachers’ unions, WEAC, in the country, then we really are going to see this sweep across the United States.” [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Wisconsin and a controversial measure targeting public sector employees. Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed a bill that would eliminate almost all collective bargaining rights for most public workers as well as slash their pay and benefits. Walker unveiled the curbs this month after refusing to negotiate a new contract with state workers.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Good-faith negotiation requires give and take. We are broke in the state. We’ve been broke for years. People have ignored that for years. And it’s about time somebody stood up and told the truth. The truth is, we don’t have money to offer. We don’t have finances to offer. This is what we have to offer. And if you’re going to negotiate, you’ve got to have something to offer. We don’t have something.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Walker has notified the state’s National Guard to be on alert for actions taken by unsatisfied state, county and municipal employees. On Monday, hundreds of protesters marched on the State Capitol in Madison.

PROTESTERS: Spread the love! Stop the hate! Don’t let Walker legislate! Spread the love! Stop the hate! Don’t let Walker legislate!

PROTESTER: Students, are we going to stand for this attack on our teachers?

PROTESTERS: Hell no!

PROTESTER: Are we going to stand for this attack on the people that make our universities work?

PROTESTERS: Kill this bill! Kill this bill! Kill this bill!

AMY GOODMAN: They are chanting, "Kill this bill!" More protests are expected in Madison throughout the week.

For more on the bill, we remain in Madison with Nation correspondent John Nichols, and we’re joined by Brad Lutes, who has taught in the Wisconsin public school system for 13 years.

Did the Governor’s address come as a shock to you, Brad?

BRAD LUTES: Very much so. It’s surprising that he would take action so quick and such a strong action against all public employees, not just teachers, but all kinds of public employees — except, of course, those that supported him in the election.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, explain that.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, Governor Walker took office in January, after a campaign in which he really ran as a feel-good Republican. He did not talk about gutting public employee contracts. He didn’t talk about getting rid of collective bargaining. He didn’t talk about perhaps imposing a sweeping right-to-work law that took away not just collective bargaining rights for public employees but for employees in the private sector. None of this came up. But in January, after taking office, he began to move very quietly behind the scenes to implement this plan. What’s fascinating is that while it does, as you note, attempt to take away collective bargaining rights for teachers, also for state, county and municipal employees, there is a special protection written in for police unions and firefighter unions that happened to support him in the last election.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he is threatening to call out the National Guard, Brad Lutes?

BRAD LUTES: Yeah, I guess he’s a little bit afraid that people are going to take action or be excessive. I think the reality here is, people are just concerned about how it’s going to impact and hurt them. My family, personally, we’re looking at anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000 in lost income, because my wife and I both teach.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your job. You teach at an elementary school?

BRAD LUTES: Yeah, I teach kindergarten through fifth grade, physical education. My wife does the same in a different elementary. We both have our master’s degree, have been teaching 13 years, have two young kids.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about how this will personally affect your family.

BRAD LUTES: We’ve collectively bargained for a long time our Wisconsin retirement portion of our salary. Now, the Governor is imposing a 5.8 percent out-of-pocket expense towards our retirement, which, for my wife and I, both earning about $50,000, combined is nearly $5,000, $6,000. On top of that, he’s going to be implementing a 12.6 percent health insurance premium pay on every state employee.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, put this in a national context. I mean, you have the situation of Wisconsin, one of the top 10 most unionized states in the country. Every aspect of the public sector is unionized. And then put this in terms of other states, like New Jersey with Chris Christie, New York with Andrew Cuomo, Ohio with John Kasich.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think that’s exactly where to go with this discussion, Amy, because Wisconsin is a state that Teddy Roosevelt used to refer to as the "laboratory of democracy." This is a place where ideas that the rest of the country takes up have historically come from. It’s partially because the state has a very fluid, very kind of fast-acting model for state government. And there’s simply no question that Republican governors in New Jersey, in Ohio and in a number of other states are watching what happens in Wisconsin. If Governor Walker pulls this off, if he succeeds in taking away collective bargaining rights from the union, AFSCME, which was founded in Wisconsin back in the 1930s, if he takes down one of the most — one of the strongest and most effective teachers’ unions, WEAC, in the country, then we really are going to see this sweep across the United States. There is simply no question of that. Governor Kasich in Ohio has already introduced a similar bill. We’ve seen Governor Daniels in Indiana, by fiat, do something of this kind a while back.

And there’s no doubt in my mind that this is part of a wide Republican and conservative strategy to take down public employee unions, which have done two things: one, they have challenged Republicans at election time — the truth of the matter is, public employee unions are a very important political force in this country; but two, and I think more importantly, they have been the primary advocates in the United States, for the better part of 30 years, for public sector spending and for public education. If you weaken these unions, you really do weaken the public sphere. And frankly, that’s something that a lot of right-wing think tanks in Washington would like to see happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Brad Lutes, the Walker plan would require public workers to pay half the cost of your pensions, the 5.8 percent of pay for state workers, at least 12 percent of your health insurance premiums?

BRAD LUTES: That’s the talk right now. And obviously that’s going to have a huge impact. We talk about — Governor Walker talked about the state of Wisconsin being open for business. Personally, I don’t know how anybody is going to be able to afford to do business. All the small-business owners in our community are going to take a huge hit. This is going to have a dramatic impact on business in Wisconsin, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Using the National Guard, John Nichols, for union busting, is there a history in Wisconsin?

JOHN NICHOLS: I hate to tell you, there is a little bit of history of it. Wisconsin is one of the places where the trade union movement in United States took shape going back, going back to the 1880s. While many people are familiar with the story of the Haymarket violence in Chicago, the fact is that Wisconsin has had some real history of intense and sometimes violent union struggles — not violence by the workers so much as workers who have been attacked by military or quasi-military forces.

But, in the state of Wisconsin since the 1930s — and I want to emphasize that, since the 1930s — we have had relative labor peace in the public sector. Wisconsin is where, as I mentioned before, the union AFSCME was formed. Wisconsin has recognized collective bargaining rights for public employees for more than 50 years. And over that time, we have not had the National Guard called out, we have not had violent situations. The fact of the matter is, Scott Walker is attacking a model that has worked very well. And he’s doing so for no reason.

The interesting thing is that we have already heard from an awfully lot of teachers and public employees, who also serve in the National Guard and who are saying they have no idea why they would be called out to beat down or to beat back protests by their fellow workers, who are not being violent, who are simply doing what — you know, to use an analogy here — we saw on the streets of Cairo and other cities: they are standing up to what they see as an inappropriate, undemocratic act by a government official and protesting peacefully. To call out the National Guard is simply inappropriate.

AMY GOODMAN: Brad Lutes, you’re an elementary school teacher. Are you planning to go to work? Wisconsin’s Department of Administration is requiring each agency to report the percentage of employees reporting to work. Workers who call to say they won’t be at work are told — are being told that you could be fired if it’s connected to a strike or a work slowdown. Have you been warned?

BRAD LUTES: I personally haven’t. Our local school district is very much supportive of trying to defeat this bill. They understand the impact it’s going to have, not just on teachers, but also administrators and the public school system in general. It’s the kids that are going to be left out in the cold.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to be outside protesting?

BRAD LUTES: I will.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, John Nichols, put this in the context of massive protests against austerity budgets in Europe and, as you were talking about, what happened in Egypt.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, that’s the key. You know, the fascinating thing is that if we watched the news reports from Cairo in the aftermath of the fall of Mubarak, when a dictator was removed from power, what did you see happen? Trade unions hit the streets. You had workers who were out there saying, you know, "We have collective bargaining rights. We want to speak up." The fact of the matter is that what we’re seeing is a global push against the rights of workers to stand up and make their voice heard. The United States is very conscious of that and, I think, at its best, outspoken in criticism of it in what we see as dictatorial states.

What’s troubling to me is this talk of calling out the National Guard, this talk of really repressively putting down protests in the state of Wisconsin, a state with a great progressive tradition and a state that, as I said before, the rest of the country is watching. The fact is, Wisconsin is not broke. The Fiscal Bureau of Wisconsin just said in January that it will end this year with a $123 million surplus. So the fact of the matter is that this is not being done because of a lack of money. This is being done because political forces, conservative political forces, would like to disempower public employee unions and remove that voice for a strong public sector. That’s what austerity really translates as. And I do hope people keep an eye on what’s happening in Wisconsin with a similar eye to what they watch protests around the world with. This is a place where we really are going to see a critical test of whether workers have the right and also the power to demand fair play.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Nichols, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a correspondent for The Nation magazine. He is in Madison, as is Brad Lutes, who teaches in the Wisconsin public school system for 13 years. He teaches in elementary school, as does his wife.

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