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Wisconsin State Senators Remain in Illinois as Public Employee Battle Goes On

Wisconsin Labor Protest Sign

As one Wisconsin protestor put it, "Lebowski put it best." (photo: CrazyJoeDavola)

Here’s the latest on the budget bill in Wisconsin. The State Assembly convened this morning and may take up the bill prior to the Senate. Originally, the idea was to have the Senate go first, before its Democratic members decamped for Illinois. WisPolitics says that they “won’t return before Saturday,” which is cryptic. Senate Republicans will probably come in today, but I’m not sure what they’ll do.

Protesters occupied the Capitol for a third straight night. There’s now talk of a dueling Tea Party rally on Saturday, which could get interesting. Workers watching a feed of a news conference with Governor Scott Walker defending his proposal yesterday chanted “Re-call” repeatedly. And the LA Times notes the similar measures across the country:

Republicans are hoping to emulate Walker’s actions across the Rust Belt. In Ohio on Thursday, a state hearing was held on a proposed Wisconsin-style law that is backed by the state’s new governor. That drew about 1,800 protesters.

Similar measures are making their way through legislatures in Iowa and Michigan — all union strongholds, but also states where Republicans seized the governorships and both houses of each legislature in last year’s election.

In 1959, Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to give all public-sector workers collective bargaining rights. Many states soon followed, and public-sector union membership swelled even as the labor movement began to lose workers in the private sector. Currently, only 12 states deny public workers the right to collective bargaining, and more workers are unionized in government than in the private sector.

Plunderbund has a slideshow of workers rallying in Columbus, Ohio against their version of this bill, SB 5.

It turns out that the average public pension for a Wisconsin public employee is around $24,500 a year, according to tax expert David Cay Johnston. In addition, the state pension plan gives 15% of its money every year to Wall Street money managers, which Johnston described as “a really huge high percentage.” But the pension battle, which has been totally distorted, is almost secondary to the attempted stripping of worker rights.

This has been Governor Walker’s M.O. from the beginning, and he actually got a little help from a former Senate Democrat. I have to sheepishly admit that I wrote something about this on New Year’s Day. It turns out that Democrats called a special session in December to approve a variety of union contracts, and they lost by one vote:

December, often a sleepy time around here, brought a series of explosive episodes. Democratic leaders, pressing to approve contracts for state workers before Republicans took control, called a special session.

Mr. Walker, who has said publicly that he hopes to force public employees’ wages and benefits “into line” with everyone else’s, urged leaders against the session, saying he needed “maximum flexibility” to handle the state’s coming budgets, but Democrats argued that the contracts were not particularly beneficial to workers anyway (they included no raises and furlough time that amounted to a pay cut).

In the end, the State Assembly approved most of the contracts by a single vote, one that was cast, Republicans complain bitterly, by a legislator who had been permitted to travel to Madison to vote though he was serving a jail sentence (with work-release privileges) for driving under the influence of an intoxicant. But a tie in the State Senate — thanks, in part, shockingly to a “no” vote from the Democrats’ own majority leader — meant the contracts failed. (The leader, Russ Decker of Schofield, who had already lost his re-election bid, was then deposed by his caucus.)

Since this whole thing boils down to a test of mettle of state Senate Democrats, I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. On the one hand, their former majority leader put them in this situation, allowing for these contracts to get renegotiated by an all-Republican legislature and Governorship. On the other hand, the remaining Senate members were so furious that they immediately deposed the majority leader, and so maybe they won’t brook any dissent from their membership this time.

One thing is clear – the failure to approve the public employee contracts late last year gave Walker an opening, one he is using to try and bust the unions. The extreme nature of this approach may backfire. But it’s a lesson for future generations of Democrats. [Updates after the jump.]

UPDATE: Lots of great links here.

UPDATE: Thought I’d pass along California Democratic Party Chair John Burton’s statement on this matter:

The governor of the state of Wisconsin today is reaping the results of the Republican Party’s relentless and shameless campaign to scapegoat public employees. Governor Walker’s approach is in fact standard Republican operating procedure: attack working people for the problems caused by Wall Street banks and financial speculators.

Stripping hard working men and women of their collective bargaining right is an unconscionable attack against all hard-working Americans, whether they belong to a union or not.

CommunityThe Bullpen

Wisconsin State Senators Remain in Illinois As Public Employee Battle Goes On

Here’s the latest on the budget bill in Wisconsin. The State Assembly convened this morning and may take up the bill prior to the Senate. Originally, the idea was to have the Senate go first, before its Democratic members decamped for Illinois. WisPolitics says that they “won’t return before Saturday,” which is cryptic. Senate Republicans will probably come in today, but I’m not sure what they’ll do.

Protesters occupied the Capitol for a third straight night. There’s now talk of a dueling Tea Party rally on Saturday, which could get interesting. Workers watching a feed of a news conference with Governor Scott Walker defending his proposal yesterday chanted “Re-call” repeatedly. For his part, Walker said he wouldn’t be “bullied” by workers. Fine choice of phrase.

The LA Times notes the similar measures across the country:

Republicans are hoping to emulate Walker’s actions across the Rust Belt. In Ohio on Thursday, a state hearing was held on a proposed Wisconsin-style law that is backed by the state’s new governor. That drew about 1,800 protesters.

Similar measures are making their way through legislatures in Iowa and Michigan — all union strongholds, but also states where Republicans seized the governorships and both houses of each legislature in last year’s election.

In 1959, Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to give all public-sector workers collective bargaining rights. Many states soon followed, and public-sector union membership swelled even as the labor movement began to lose workers in the private sector. Currently, only 12 states deny public workers the right to collective bargaining, and more workers are unionized in government than in the private sector.

Plunderbund has a slideshow of workers rallying in Columbus, Ohio against their version of this bill, SB 5.

It turns out that the average public pension for a Wisconsin public employee is around $24,500 a year, according to tax expert David Cay Johnston. In addition, the state pension plan gives 15% of its money every year to Wall Street money managers, which Johnston described as “a really huge high percentage.” But the pension battle, which has been totally distorted, is almost secondary to the attempted stripping of worker rights.

This has been Governor Walker’s M.O. from the beginning, and he actually got a little help from a former Senate Democrat. I have to sheepishly admit that I wrote something about this on New Year’s Day. It turns out that Democrats called a special session in December to approve a variety of union contracts, and they lost by one vote:

December, often a sleepy time around here, brought a series of explosive episodes. Democratic leaders, pressing to approve contracts for state workers before Republicans took control, called a special session.

Mr. Walker, who has said publicly that he hopes to force public employees’ wages and benefits “into line” with everyone else’s, urged leaders against the session, saying he needed “maximum flexibility” to handle the state’s coming budgets, but Democrats argued that the contracts were not particularly beneficial to workers anyway (they included no raises and furlough time that amounted to a pay cut).

In the end, the State Assembly approved most of the contracts by a single vote, one that was cast, Republicans complain bitterly, by a legislator who had been permitted to travel to Madison to vote though he was serving a jail sentence (with work-release privileges) for driving under the influence of an intoxicant. But a tie in the State Senate — thanks, in part, shockingly to a “no” vote from the Democrats’ own majority leader — meant the contracts failed. (The leader, Russ Decker of Schofield, who had already lost his re-election bid, was then deposed by his caucus.)

Since this whole thing boils down to a test of mettle of state Senate Democrats, I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. On the one hand, their former majority leader put them in this situation, allowing for these contracts to get renegotiated by an all-Republican legislature and Governorship. On the other hand, the remaining Senate members were so furious that they immediately deposed the majority leader, and so maybe they won’t brook any dissent from their membership this time.

One thing is clear – the failure to approve the public employee contracts late last year gave Walker an opening, one he is using to try and bust the unions. The extreme nature of this approach may backfire. But it’s a lesson for future generations of Democrats.

UPDATE: Lots of great links here.

UPDATE: Thought I’d pass along California Democratic Party Chair John Burton’s statement on this matter:

The governor of the state of Wisconsin today is reaping the results of the Republican Party’s relentless and shameless campaign to scapegoat public employees. Governor Walker’s approach is in fact standard Republican operating procedure: attack working people for the problems caused by Wall Street banks and financial speculators.

Stripping hard working men and women of their collective bargaining right is an unconscionable attack against all hard-working Americans, whether they belong to a union or not.

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David Dayen

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