Scott Walker and a return to 19th Century politics
I'm not usually one for the above hyperbole, but Walker's recently announced budget "repair" bill is going the distance to change my mind. It's a real piece of work.
In short, Walker is making a bold and very dangerous play to strip the rights of state employees by taking away almost all of their ability to engage in collective bargaining. Compounding that, he'd also like to make it a firing offense for said workers to resort to using strikes to protest any negative effects of that loss of rights.
None of this comes as a particularly huge surprise, of course: Republicans have been working to demonize public sector employees for years, claiming that they enjoy bloated salaries and benefits while private sector workers suffer. Walker has never acted as much of an ally to government employees, either, and we'd had fair warning that these were the policies he'd be likely to pursue if elected as governor.
That foreknowledge doesn't make any of this more palatable.
What strikes me the most is Walker's apparent complete lack of subtlety or diplomacy in this case (probably in general, too): There was an interesting argument to be made for having state workers chip in at a higher rate to their pensions and health care benefits, and that was in fact exactly what they'd done when contracts were finally agreed upon late last year (before being killed in the Legislature). There was a case to be made that their union representatives unnecessarily dragged their heels in those negotiations with the Doyle Administration.
All of that goes out the window because of the union-busting also present in the bill and Walker's complete lack of desire to actually talk to those it affects. That one thing makes Walker so wrong, and is the primary reason that thousands of people across Wisconsin are now calling for his political head. That he went so far as to publicly state that he'd been speaking with the Wisconsin National Guard for possible deployment as scabs if, say, prison guards walked off the job, also illustrates just how tone-deaf the guy apparently is. Not only is wedging Guardsmen into jobs for which they are not trained a piss poor idea, but simply mentioning the National Guard in the context of union busting and strike quelling will immediately raise hackles and suspicions that in no way benefit Walker's stated end-goal of putting the state on a better track.
Unless Bill Lueders is right, and what Walker would love more than anything is for protests to turn violent so he can point fingers and say "Look! Union people are dangerous maniacs!" -- which, I don't know, I've just never gotten that Machiavellian a hit off the man. Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Then again, the Department of Administration has now instructed all agencies to keep a strict, daily count of employees who call in sick. Carrie Mickelson, the HR director for the Wisconsin DNR, claims that this is all simply because, "If somebody doesn't report to work, we need to make sure somebody else can handle those responsibilities. It's more about our redirecting our efforts."
Of course, what she doesn't mention is the fact that Walker's proposal calls for allowing agencies to "terminate any employees that are absent for three days without approval of the employer or any employees participating in an organized action to stop or slow work if the governor has declared a state of emergency."
I have several acquaintances who work for various government agencies who've all received Walker's placating letter (PDF), but who've all been hearing directly from supervisors that the above policy is already being implemented and adhered to, in preparation for what they apparently believe to be its inevitable passage into law.
Walker yesterday gave a brief statement to the press wherein he claimed that the bill really wasn't so bad -- "I think it's an incredibly positive alternative" -- that it was either that or fire 6,000 government workers. Oddly enough, he also claimed that he wasn't setting it up as a "yes or no" proposition, although that's exactly what he's doing. And it's not. The choice was never between destroying unions and laying off thousands of people until Walker artificially made it that.
A lot could have been done differently to avoid the current situation all together.
The Doyle Administration and the unions could have reached their compromise contracts much earlier in the process, so that they would have become official before Walker won election and effectively killed them.
But public discourse about government employees should have and still needs to be more honest: We all need to recognize that these people are not paid on par with their private sector counterparts, and that the good benefits and pensions were about all we were doing to help make up for that disparity ("Wisconsin public employees earn 4.8% less in total compensation per hour than comparable full-time employees in Wisconsin's private sector."). We can't let anti-union forces dominate the discourse with half-truths and outright lies.
These workers are, after all, the people teaching our children, guarding our prisons, helping those people in mental and/or physical need, and even policing our capitol and university (two groups not exempted from the proposed changes along with regular police and fire). The least we can do is go into negotiations regarding their livelihoods with accurate information.
And that's the final key: Negotiation. Walker claims he added the union busting provisions to the bill as a way to see that his budget proposals go through more quickly. He's not interested in a compromise -- "We cannot wait for budget to be balanced if we wait for collective bargaining process to play out," says Walker.
What he's saying, then, is that he's not interested in running a democracy. When you eliminate or even cripple the ability of a people to have a fair say in how they're treated and governed, you're treading on very dangerous, very undemocratic ground. I'm not going to go so far as to compare Walker to Hosni Mubarak, as some have already (I think rashly) done. Wisconsin is not Egypt, and it does a disservice to the history and sacrifices of the Egyptian people to make such direct comparisons.
We can, however, learn from their determination and willingness to protest undemocratic ideas and institutions. And Walker would do well to heed the voice of the people, less he, like Mubarak, end up without an office at all.
The voice of the people is echoing through the rotunda
Action to stop Walker from rushing through this budget bill by the end of the week began immediately. Unions across the state (and country) and their allies rallied support and started holding protests and other meetings right away.
On Monday, the TAA along with other UW faculty, staff and students gathered at the Memorial Union carrying thousands of Valentine's Day cards bound for Walker's office, asking him not to "break their hearts" by attacking the educators and UW System itself.
Some dismissed the rally as too cutesy and nave, but the remarkably good-natured crowd actually went further than most marches up State Street I've been privy to (and that number is quite high, thank you). The several-hundred-body strong contingent didn't stop at the Capitol steps, but marched into the rotunda itself, filling the halls of government with loud, passionate chants to "Kill the bill!" and "Spread the love! Stop the hate! Don't let Walker legislate!"
And then they trooped right up to the door of Walker's office and dumped the massive pile of Valentine's cards onto the reception desk, all while handing out candy hearts to the assembled aides and security staff.
There was no way their calls couldn't be heard all throughout the capitol building. It's a good start, but much more certainly needs to be done.
Events are planned for the rest of the week, too, and turnout is looking to be quite large. Today (Tuesday), a rally and lobbying day is being organized by various state unions and allies:
- 10 a.m. Legislative Briefings at Masonic Temple, 301 Wisconsin Ave, Madison
- 11 a.m. Lobby Visits, State Capitol
- Noon Rally on Capitol Square
Tuesday: State Street Capitol Steps
Wednesday: King St. Capitol Entrance
- 1 p.m. Resume Lobby Visits, State Capitol
- 3:00 to 7:00 p.m. Candlelight Vigil with speakers at 6:30
Tonight at the Orpheum Theatre there will also be an open community forum to discuss action against Walker's bill, to be held from 5 p.m. to about 9 p.m.
For a more comprehensive list of events and locations across the state, click the link above.
The hidden assault on Medicaid
Lost in the hubbub about Walker's attack on collective bargaining rights is the fact that he's also included a provision that would give the Department of Health Services, now run by a guy who's on record with some very controversial statements about Medicaid, the right to restructure the program "without approval by the Legislature and without having to abide by current law governing benefits and programs."
Between this and Walker's support of Attorney General Van Hollen's joining a lawsuit against the federal health care law, Wisconsinite's should probably brace themselves for a very bumpy, unhealthy road ahead.
Can we recall this guy yet?