Wisconsin Protests Illustrate Struggle for Workers’ Rights

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker assumed office this year on Jan. 3, and he has already managed to set off massive protests both in Madison and around the state. Surely this is a new record for an incoming governor. Walker has proposed a controversial bill to address Wisconsin’s anticipated budget shortfall that limits collective bargaining for most state and local employees to wage negotiations. It also repeals collective bargaining power entirely for others, such as faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin. The bill would also require state and local employees to contribute significantly more towards their pension and health care premiums.

Protests against the bill led by unionized state and local employees, university students, and other supporters began in Madison on Feb. 15 and quickly spread throughout the state. High school and college students organized walkouts and teachers called in sick, forcing many school districts to shut down. The fourteen Democratic state senators fled the state to an “undisclosed location” (i.e. Chicago) in order to prevent a quorum in the state senate, the necessary precondition for the bill to come to a vote. As the protests continue and Republicans and Democrats seem ever closer to an impasse, the story has spread nationwide, inspiring protests against anti-union legislation in other states. Wisconsin has served to illustrate the national debate over unions, compensation for state employees, and the how to cover state budget shortfalls, all of which have become fiercely partisan issues.

Beyond the partisan clash over its proposals, however, the bill may have a far-reaching negative impact on Wisconsin’s education system. The University of Wisconsin is a standout among American public university systems. Its flagship school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, consistently ranks among the top U.S. and international research universities. Threatening to effectively reduce the salaries of its faculty and staff could materially harm the university’s ability to keep and attract talent, and some current professors have said they will leave if the bill is passed. The state’s K-12 schools have been similarly successful, regularly performing well on standardized tests and other metrics. Few would say teaching in Wisconsin is a lucrative profession, and cutting benefits and salaries will not do anything to encourage more people to become teachers. Despite the Tea Party picture of public employees who merely have to punch the clock to pick up far-too-fat paychecks and benefits, no teacher, with the exception of the very few who have ascended to high-level administrative positions, has ever gotten rich from teaching. Like everyone else, they struggle financially when a family member faces a severe health problem, and they have difficulty paying for their children’s college educations. It is shortsighted to handicap the institutions which Wisconsin should be proudest of as a temporary budgetary fix or to make a partisan point.

Most importantly, Governor Walker’s bill is an assault on the rich history of unions in Wisconsin. Historically progressive, Wisconsin was among the first states to implement a minimum wage and to limit the workday and workweek. It also led the nation in creating unemployment insurance and worker compensation. (The Green Bay Packers, this year’s Super Bowl winners, are the only collectively-owned NFL team.) More than a hundred years ago, Wisconsinites were leaders in fighting for the rights of workers in America. The outcome of this bill, too, may presage a new national trend, in which unions are marginalized and the right to collectively bargain is gradually stripped away. In her coverage of the controversy, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow asserted that, “If you can bust public unions in Wisconsin, you can bust them anywhere”—a sentiment echoed by other commentators dissecting the significance of Walker’s budget bill. The bill and the larger national trend extend beyond just a belt-tightening sacrifice asked of public employees in difficult budgetary times. Wisconsin is demanding that workers shed rights they have held for more than 100 years, rights they won at an incredible cost. The struggle for workers’ rights is growing less distant and more important each day.

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