By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
Last week, it was Cairo. This week, it’s Madison, Wis.
Last week, it was Hosni Mubarak. This week, it’s Scott Walker.
Two days in a row this week, more than 15,000 people gathered in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol building. The crowds in the streets of Madison weren’t as big as those in Tahrir Square, but they turned out for the same reason: to fight for their freedom and to fight against a dictator. In this case, the freedom of public employees to exercise their constitutional rights, including the right to join a union and enter into collective bargaining — constitutional rights which newly-elected Governor Scott Walker wants to take away.
Under the guise of solving Wisconsin’s budget problems, Walker has declared war on public-sector unions. He sponsored legislation that would cut the salaries of state and local public employees, slash their benefits, prohibit them from bargaining for anything but wages, force a yearly vote of union members, and allow management to fire workers who try to form a union. He’s also threatened to call out the National Guard to take the jobs of any employees who refuse to comply with his new rules.
There’s only one thing wrong with Walker’s argument: Wisconsin, in fact, is in relatively good financial shape. As reported by the Madison Capital Times, it has lower unemployment than most states, its economy is booming, businesses are hiring, and it’ll end the year with a $121.4 million surplus. Not only that, its public pension plan, unlike other states, is fully funded. The only fiscal problem Wisconsin faces is how to pay for $140 million in tax breaks for corporations that Walker himself pushed through the Republican-controlled legislature in January.
Walker’s not trying to solve a fiscal crisis, in other words, because there is none. Instead, he’s making a political statement. He’s trying to destroy unions, especially public-sector unions. And he’s not the only one. Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, John Kasich of Ohio, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, and Rick Scott of Florida are trying to do the same thing, using the same phony argument.
The only way we can fix our budget problems, they insist, is to cut the salaries and benefits of public employees. Baloney!
First of all, who are we talking about? Your friends, your neighbors, and the people we all depend on for community services. Police and firefighters, teachers and nurses, sanitation workers, home health care providers, park rangers, bus drivers, snowplow operators and highway repair crews. The pillars of civil society. None of whom are getting rich at taxpayer expense.
In fact, the average member of AFSCME, our largest public-sector union, makes less than $45,000 a year and retires after a career in public service with a whopping pension of $19,000 per year. Yes, there are some people today making obscene salaries and bonuses and not paying their fair share of taxes, but they’re not public employees. And cutting the wages and benefits of public employees and denying them the right to organize is not going to solve any state’s real or manufactured fiscal problems.
Not surprisingly, the war against working men and women is being waged, not only at the state level, but also in Congress, led by House Speaker John Boehner. After the midterm elections, when Boehner crowed that “jobs” was going to be the Republicans’ number one priority, we didn’t realize he meant destroying jobs, not creating them.
Yet that’s exactly what Boehner’s doing. His plan to slash $61 billion from this year’s budget will result in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, from air traffic controllers to meat inspectors to border guards. And when asked about the job loss, Boehner simply shrugged: “Over the last two years since President Obama has taken office the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs. And if some of those jobs are lost in this, so be it.”
Boehner’s wrong on the facts. According to PolitiFact, the actual number of new federal jobs created in 2009 and 2010 is 58,000. But his cynical “So be it” does sum up the Republican Party’s attitude about American workers.
As a result of their policies, millions of Americans will lose their jobs, lose their health care, and maybe even lose their homes. And all Republicans can say is: Too bad. Stuff happens. So be it. Is it too early for voters’ remorse?
© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.