By Mary Bottari on February 22, 2011

Madison, Wisconsin -- It's midnight Monday. A quiet snow is falling outside the Wisconsin State Capitol, and clean-cut fire fighters are rolling out their sleeping bags and getting ready to sleep on hard marble floors with students who looked a bit shaggy after five nights of the same. Since Tuesday, February 15, tens of thousands of Wisconsin residents have been flooding the State Capitol in Madison in protest of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's proposed budget "repair" bill that would savage Wisconsin's 50-year history of collective bargaining for state, county and municipal workers. Tuesday, February 22 will be a critical day in the fight. The Wisconsin Assembly will take up the bill, introducing over 100 amendments, starting at 11:00 a.m. and the Republicans in the Senate will attempt to lure their Democratic colleagues back into the state from their undisclosed location by scheduling votes on the bill the Democrats deplore. (Watch floor action on the www.wisconsineye.org Wisconsin Eye website).

Direct Attack on the Right to Organize

The bill does not just force public workers to tighten their belts. It strips some workers, such as University of Wisconsin hospital employees, of the right to collectively bargain entirely. It also forces public sector units to re-certify every year -- an onerous endeavor -- and it takes money away from unions. No public employer can deduct union wages from employee paychecks. Progressive Magazine editor Matt Rosthchild says for unions "it's a threat to their very existence."

The protests were large, loud and spontaneous because Wisconsin workers got it right away. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said today, "It would be as if the Governor said he wanted to take away women's right to equal pay in order to balance the budget." The fact that the bill is more political than fiscal is highlighted by the exceptions from the collective bargaining provisions for unions who supported the governor during his last election: police and fire, but not prison guards. So far the house of labor has refused to be divided and Wisconsin fire fighters have turned up at every rally -- greeted as the heros. "When there is an emergency, we show up," explains Mahlon Mitchell, head of the state firefighters union. Today the corrections officers and a diversity of private sector workers marched in to take the place of Madison teachers -- who were the first to walk out and proudly went back to work today.

The newly-elected governor, who has not yet sat down at any bargaining table, claims that the state is in desperate straits forcing him to balance the budget on the back of state workers, who are paid on average 8% less than their public sector counterparts. But AFSCME Council 24 called his bluff. Leader Marty Beil stated flatly that they were prepared to agree to health and benefit concessions if the governor strips the bill of the provisions on collective bargaining. The Governor rejected the AFSCME offer, illustrating the point that this is not about the measly $30 million he claims the collective bargaining aspects would save, but an assault on the unions themselves.

Scapegoating Public Workers While Ignoring the Banksters

From our offices four blocks from the Capitol, the Center for Media and Democracy has been live blogging this spontaneous uprising and following the distorted national media coverage. In addition to absurd suggestions that President Obama is behind the whole thing (he has been AWOL and unhelpful) and descriptions of the mom-and-pop crowds with kids in tow as "dangerous" and "anarchistic," one aspect missing in the debate surrounding this bill is the role of Wall Street.

Thank Your Teachers ProtestIn 2008, reckless Wall Street financial institutions collapsed the global economy putting eight million Americans out of work and robbing the middle class of some $14 trillion in wealth. Because workers pay taxes, states, cities and counties have taken a massive revenue hit. In 2009, Wisconsin wrestled with a $6 billion shortfall and successfully balanced the budget with a combination of revenue raisers and budget cuts. The nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau reports that Walker would have a $56 million surplus this year, but face a future shortfall of $3 billion. Many contend that the shortfall is in part due to some $100 million in tax breaks he doled out recently.

As United Steel Workers President Leo Gerard told the crowd in front of the Capitol Monday, "This is not about spending, this is about revenue. 53,000 factories have closed since the Bush years, since the collapse we have 27 million unemployed and underemployed. Let's be clear -- this mess was not caused by workers, but by corporate thugs on Wall Street."

Gerard went further to point out: "The top 20 hedge fund managers made on average $870 million each and they are taxed at a rate of 15%. That money would pay for 25 police, 25 firefighters, 50 teachers in all 3,000 counties in America!" The crowd responded with chants of "Shame on them! Shame on them!" President Trumka hit the same theme earlier in front of a crowd of 80,000 this weekend: "No Wisconsin teacher gambled on Wall Street, no snowplow driver shipped Wisconsin jobs overseas... We have seen this over and over again, they gin up a fiscal crisis to justify their attacks on working people and the middle class."

Laura Dresser of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, a University of Wisconsin think tank on equitable economic development strategies, said, "If we let the right wing trick us into believing that state workers are the problem and not the folks on Wall Street, we may as well pack it in."

Votes Today

Today will be a decisive day for Wisconsinites, and they may well lose the vote in the Assembly. Check PRwatch.org for regular updates. But there is hope. The unions are united that the bill will not pass, and the defiant 14 Democratic state senators who left the state to prevent the radical proposal from being rammed through are still operating from an undisclosed location, garnering public support and a surprising influx of campaign contributions.

Tom Morelllo, lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine and a proud son of a Libertyville, Illinois, school teacher, cheered the protesters and their elected representatives on last night at a rock concert at Madison's beautiful Monona Terrace: "The future of the rights of working people in this country is not going to be decided in the courts; it's not going to be decided in Congress or on Fox News. The future of rights of working people in this country will be the fight on the streets of Madison, Wisconsin." Then he ripped into Guerilla Radio:

It has to start somewhere

It has to start sometime

What better place than here

What better time than now

All hell can't stop us now

All hell can't stop us now

All hell can't stop us now

All hell can't stop us now

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari, CMD's Deputy Director, is an experienced policy wonk and consumer advocate who has served as a senior analyst on trade.