Unions and progressives suffered a tremendous defeat in Wisconsin this week. Out of this defeat, however, may come significant victories – if a broad-based social movement emerges.
En route to Madison, I listened to Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) strenuously objecting to the Republicans’ maneuver to strip pubic employees of collective bargaining rights. I listened to 18 Republican Senators vote to kill public employee unions.
Absolute despair engulfed me – my forty-seven years on this planet seemed for naught. I grew up in a union family. My dad struck for teacher rights in 1973. My mom enjoys a comfortable retirement because of the teachers union. I once worked as a union representative for public employees. In the blink of an eye, Republicans wiped out my family’s history.
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I arrived at the Capitol just before access was shut down to the public (full access was later restored when pro-union workers successfully maneuvered through windows and doors obstructed by police, until the police relented and allowed everyone into the Capitol).
“We are a gentle, angry people,” I thought as I entered the Capitol’s rotunda.
People are angry at the theft of democracy in Wisconsin. People are angry at the destruction of the Wisconsin Idea by the Republican Party. People are angry that hundreds of thousands of voices are drowned out by the interests of major corporations.
Yet people in Madison are steadfast and resolute in gently advocating for human rights. Gentle in this case does not mean meek, reticent or shy. Gentle means creating an environment of determined, nonviolent action in which families fully participate, from the youngest infant to the most elderly grandparent or great-grandparent.
The Capitol was a cacophony of sound. “Whose house? Our house!” and, “Recall Walker!” were interspersed with, “Peaceful protest,” to ensure the tone remained gentle and resolute.
I entered the Capitol thinking, “Democracy is dead.” This thought soon became, “Long live democracy.”
Long live democracy if – and this is a big if – the struggle to protect public workers’ collective bargaining rights can morph into a broad-based struggle to defend Wisconsin against a corporate takeover. Indeed, it may well be that the stripping of collective bargaining rights is a necessary prerequisite for the building of this broad-based movement.
Until now, public debate in Wisconsin has focused almost exclusively upon collective bargaining rights. In the many rallies I have attended, rare was the speaker who raised such matters as the gutting of Medicaid or the no-bid sale of power plants contained in the budget repair bill (which, until Wednesday’s Senate action, also contained the collective bargaining language). The Senate Democrats who relocated to Illinois in a bid to defeat the bill did so exclusively to protect collective bargaining rights (which is not to say they are not opposed to other aspects of the bill).
Now, with union rights sliced and diced to virtual nothingness, the public debate must expand to address all aspects of the Republican Party’s move to roll back 100 years of progressive gains in the state. Given the overwhelming Republican vote against workers’ rights (in both the Assembly and the Senate), I can no longer feign the nicety of talking about Governor Walker’s initiative as perhaps being somewhat distinct from what Republicans in the legislature might advocate. It is the collective plan of all Republicans.
The proposed state budget is a scorched earth attack upon Wisconsin’s citizens. The attack on public education continues unabated. State aid for local school districts will be sliced by over $800 million. Milwaukee public schools alone will likely lose over $70 million in state aid. Funding for the state’s technical college system will be reduced to its lowest levels since the late 1980’s. Local government and technical colleges will be prevented from using their own powers to raise funds (typically through property taxes) to make up the difference.
The Republican budget will split the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) off from the University of Wisconsin system and make it a stand-alone public authority. UW-Madison will be governed by a 21-member board, of which the governor will appoint 11members. UW-Madison will have the authority to set its tuition rate, with projections of tuition hikes of 25 percent or more. A study will be conducted as the initial stage of following the same course with UW-Milwaukee.
Medicaid and health care continue to be attacked in both the budget repair bill and the full budget. The state’s director of the Department of Health Services will be given unilateral authority to change aspects of the state’s Medicaid program – even if such changes conflict with state law – with the only check being the state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (dominated by conservative Republicans) and compliance with the minimum federal requirements. The agency’s head opposed the implementation of Senior Care (a prescription drug coverage plan for the elderly) and advocated that states consider withdrawing from Medicaid altogether.
Speaking of Senior Care, the Republican budget takes aim at the elderly in Wisconsin. Seniors will be required to pay for Medicare Part D (the prescription drug coverage part of Medicare) in order to be eligible for Senior Care. Medicare Part D costs approximately $60 per month (or $720 per year). Our elderly parents on fixed incomes will again be forced to choose between food on the table or prescription drugs to survive.
The assault on seniors and others with lower incomes continues with changes to tax policies. While corporations continue to receive tax breaks, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is cut by $41.3 million over two years and indexing of the Homestead Tax Credit (for those who own their homes) results in a cut of $8.1 million.
The environment is not spared, either. State aid for local recycling programs is eliminated, as is the requirement that local governments operate such programs. State regulations on the discharge of phosphorous into groundwater will be reduced to reflect the regulations of neighboring states and the federal government. Gone are Wisconsin’s days as a leader in environmental protection.
I wish this were an exhaustive listing of all that is under attack in Wisconsin. It is perhaps exhaustive enough, though, to point toward the kind of broad-based social justice movement that is possible in Wisconsin.
The stripping of collective bargaining rights is a devastating loss, but this Republican action might just be the glue that pulls together and solidifies a broad-based social justice movement in Wisconsin to defend and advance the progressive ideals of our state. All issues – not just bargaining rights – will be clearly on the table, to be defended and to foment a new movement to reclaim Wisconsin for progressive ideals.
Democracy is not dead. It may have taken a sucker punch to the gut, but – drawing upon the legacy of “Fighting Bob” La Follette – the progressive camp can still recover and reclaim the Capitol and the state for the people. Long live democracy.