The state of #wi/mi union
When protests against Gov. Scott Walker's still in-limbo budget "repair" bill rocked Madison over the course of February and March, the rest of the country sat up and took notice. Word spread quickly via social network sites like Facebook and Twitter, and hundreds (if not thousands) of blog posts both supporting the protests and against them were written.
Wisconsin found itself on the national stage for something other than football (thank goodness), and our elevated profile has not diminished since. Why? The reason seems twofold: First, because of the enormous backlash Walker's plans have inspired, making us a sort of ground zero for a revitalized labor movement, and resulting in a nail-biter of a Supreme Court election, as well as (so far) an unprecedented nine recall elections.
Secondly, because Walker's plans are not unique; outright attacks on the working class by predominantly Republican politicians have been popping up in several states at an accelerated pace since last November's elections.
Next door in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder managed to enact legislation giving him unprecedented (and unconstitutional) powers to appoint "emergency financial managers" in municipalities that fail "financial stress tests" administered by the state. These managers would then have the ability to fire any and all duly elected public officials and terminate collective bargaining agreements with public employees if they so deemed.
They protested in Michigan, but Snyder managed to ram through the legislation fairly quickly (I'm sure Walker is positively green with envy). Since then several emergency managers have been appointed by the governor, and their hubris is already being felt by citizens:
In Detroit, Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb announced that he would be issuing layoff notices to all of the district's 5,466 unionized employees, as well as some 250 administrators. Why? Bobb claims that the move comes "in anticipation of a workforce reduction to match the district's declining student enrollment." The problem, of course, is that he's targeting schools that serve specific at-risk populations like the teen mothers at Catherine Ferguson Academy, who recently staged an occupation of the school to protest its inclusion on a list of closures sought by Bobb.
Meanwhile, in the heavily impoverished town of Benton Harbor, state-appointed Emergency Manager Joe Harris "used the expanded powers granted by the new law to issue an order banning the city commission from taking any action without his written permission."
It's an insidious move on many levels: Benton Harbor appears to be the first major test case in Michigan of the heavy-handed emergency powers, and it makes perfect sense. I spent some time in the city a number of years ago as part of a church group doing work in the community to restore a couple of old homes with elderly occupants. While the people were overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable, the town itself was incredibly depressed. Boarded up storefronts, unkempt streets, and rampant unemployment had become and continue to be the norm as a result of white flight, outsourcing, and a whole litany of other complex issues.
Benton Harbor offers a harsh example of racial and economic disparities in America just across a small river is the city of St. Joseph, which contrasts Benton Harbor's median household income of $17,471 with one of $37,032. And whereas Benton Harbor is 92.4% black, St. Joseph is 90.31% white and, when not ignoring problems in the city across the way, seems to be actively trying to take over what's left of Benton Harbor's public lands. The glaring differences that exist in these next door neighbors speaks to many of the same, serious problems facing bigger cities like Detroit (and its more affluent neighbors like Grosse Pointe).
The folks in these places have been almost completely disenfranchised by poverty, racial inequality, and economic apocalypse. Why not try out a radical power grab in such a town? It's not like Michigan had been doing a very good job of listening to these people's voices before Snyder's new plans, after all.
Major changes to the way things are done absolutely must happen in Benton Harbor and Detroit and other similar towns and cities across the country. Unfortunately, hard right politicians and business owners are taking the same, tired, grossly unconstitutional and mean-spirited tack of further disenfranchisement and unchecked corporate deregulation where far more progressive ideas would do more good for more people in the long-run (like urban farming, community organizing, environmental stewardship, decent health care services, proper funding for public education and schools like Catherine Ferguson, etc.).
But like the reaction to Walker's power grab in Wisconsin, Gov. Snyder's egregious oversteps have now won him a recall effort of his own: Recently a group called Michigan Citizens United filed a petition to seek Gov. Snyder's recall when he becomes eligible on July 1 of this year. (Fun fact: According to a new poll, Walker's prospects for reelection in the event of his recall are a toss-up if he faces -- please please please -- Russ Feingold in the race.)
Of course, even if the drives to recall Walker and Snyder are successful, there are too many other parties interested in taking up their mantels and working to further erode the rights of the American people. It's going to take a lot of work over a long period of time to see lasting, positive change but we can do it.
If the spontaneous yet sustained protest and organizational efforts here in Wisconsin show us nothing else, it's that more of us have more in common than we may have ever thought and that by working together toward a common goal of elevating everyone instead of just a few very rich, very powerful individuals, we can achieve great things.
It might get worse before it gets better
That includes stopping in their tracks any plans for a similar, Michigan-style financial martial law act in Wisconsin.
Walker has denied that such a bill might be in the works, and I even initially dismissed reports that it might be happening here as being pure rumor. Further troubling evidence that such a bill may, in fact, be in the pipeline has since come to light, though, and I can't ignore it anymore.
Walker's claim that "There's nobody on my staff, nobody in my administration, I'm certainly not working on anything remotely close to that," may be technically true maybe none of his people are actually penning the legislation but it's certainly disingenuous.
As Scott Wittkopf, writing here at TDP, noted:
[Walker] has expressed interest in similar policies dating back to his tenure as Milwaukee County executive. The governor also maintains many longstanding political relationships with organizations and individuals currently advocating policies to usurp municipal control, starting with a campaign in Milwaukee.
Wittkopf goes on to mention that the aforementioned GMC commissioned a study in 2010 that explored potential structural reform in Milwaukee County government, a report that included "fiscal stress tests, increased government transparency, and even the possibility of eliminating county government entirely, excepting emergency services."
Then-County Executive and gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker publicly expressed his enthusiasm for the report, which, he said, "affirms his own reform plans for the county." (Curiously, the GMC was chaired at the time by Mike Grebe, Walker's campaign manager.) And it's become abundantly clear that Walker has had, and continues to have ambitions that reach much further than Milwaukee County alone.
Back to the present, though.
The Walker administration has been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about where exactly it stands on the overall issue of financial stress tests and emergency managers. Instead, Walker has been accusing "left wing bloggers" of drumming up lies about him -- his tried and true tactic to avoid actually dealing with the problems facing him by deflecting attention to some imagined bogeyman (such as he continues to do with his accusations of out-of-state agitators allegedly dominating the protests in Madison).
Whether or not the final bill that makes its way to the capitol is the exact same thing as Michigan or is slightly altered for a Wisconsin audience, it's more than worth our while to keep a close eye on this at it develops. It's been hard enough to put the brakes on Walker's power grabs already imagine what it would be like if he were given this sort of sweeping emergency management power as well.
I'm hoping this really is just fair questions over parking and traffic, but based on the solutions that have already been offered by the incoming group to alleviate said concerns having been, so far, turned down by the condo association I'm skeptical. The Madison Muslim Dawa Circle, currently renting a small space on the near east side of Madison, wants to move into a roomier locale in a Sun Prairie office park. Their conditional use permit, however, is currently tabled due to the aforementioned concerns. This had better not turn into yet another sad "mosques are evil keep 'em out of my neighborhood!" debate, is all I'm saying. Let's all be good neighbors, yes?
Opponents can try to delegitimize the political opinions and actions of the young as much as they'd like it doesn't stop young people from having an important voice in society. We'd all do well to remember that. Students at a New York middle school recently staged a walk-out in protest of massive cuts in education spending and teacher layoffs in the district, as the result of a loss of $5.7 million in state aid. Students of all ages played a major role (and continue to do so) in the Wisconsin protest movement, too. It's like the Republicans enjoy saying so often (and yet so often fail to actually act on): Kids are the ones who inherit and suffer from our mistakes the most. Trying to silence them through unnecessary punitive measures, as appears to be the case in New York, only makes their activism all the more vital.