Sunday, February 27, 2011

Arousing the green-eyed monster

In their campaign to stifle the rights of public employees in Wisconsin, the would-be masters of the universe are fanning the embers of a human vice: envy.

You no longer have the nifty pension or health insurance or the decent pay or the union protection that you or your parents once enjoyed. You may have even lost your job. Yet, look at those fat-cat public employees, strutting around with their good salaries and benefits and their union rights – all made possible with your hard-earned money. That’s so unfair. They should suffer just like you do.

The upshot is that this message is being brought to the working stiffs in the private sector by the very people who helped make them suffer: our corporate overlords (think brothers Charles and David Koch among others). They helped shove those workers onto a downward economic spiral. Now these tycoons are counting on their victims to reach up and grab their public-sector brothers and sisters and pull them down that spiral, too.

Some Wisconsin workers have bought that message, as indicated by signs on display at a relatively small counter-protest at the Capitol in Madison on Feb. 19. (See photos on this page.) One sign – “IT’S MY MONEY NOT YOUR HUMAN RIGHT” – particularly reflects the anti-government message coming out of talk radio and right-wing think tanks (financed by our corporate oligarchy) over the last three decades.

We don’t tell workers at our cable TV company or our computer store they shouldn’t bargain for fair wages because that’s our money they’re dealing with. Rather, we figure that once the money leaves our hands, it’s no longer ours. What’s ours is the 200 TV channels or the 500-gigabyte computer we got in exchange.

Likewise, in exchange for the money we give government, we get valuable services. Public-sector workers lock up bad guys, plow snow on the route to work, teach first graders their numbers and letters, make sure rat feces don’t flavor our pasta dish, put out house fires before they reach our homes and maintain our favorite parks.

True, unlike in the private sector, we are not just consumers; we are also collectively the boss of public employees – which gives us the right to debate how the money ought to be spent, but also the moral duty to be a fair boss and to give just compensation for work done. Collective bargaining helps ensure we fulfill that duty.

Fortunately, the appeal to envy has had only limited success, polls suggest. Most people in Wisconsin and in America side with the effort of public employees to maintain their bargaining rights (though Wisconsin residents are evenly split on Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bill). Doubtless, labor’s readiness to concede on all economic issues has helped it in the battle of public opinion. The governor’s refusal to compromise in the face of that concession shows that his real goal is to castrate the unions.

A big reason America’s middle class has receded is that labor unions have eroded in the private sector. One possible response of workers there is to resent their compatriots in the public sector, where labor strength has grown over the last several decades. But most workers have not succumbed to that temptation. Rather, they astutely recognize that the middle class is less likely to rebound if public-sector labor unions lose their strength, too.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A day of protest in Madison

At a gas station in Delafield, Wisconsin, off I-94, two female clerks – one older, one younger – are arguing about the merits of the labor demonstrations in Madison. It’s Saturday, Day 5 of the protests that have grabbed the nation’s attention, and this time the Tea Party is supposed to show for a counter-demonstration.

“I do respect the teachers.” the older woman retorts, as I walk in. “But they don’t have to pay hardly anything for their benefits. A lot of people don’t even get health insurance or a pension. Besides, I believe Wisconsin is rated as having the worst school system in the country. So why should they get all that money when the schools are so bad?” (Actually, Wisconsin is rated among the top in the nation in teaching white kids and among the bottom in teaching black kids.)

I arrive in Madison about noon, park at the East Towne Mall and join a crowd at a city bus stop. Fare is $2, exact change, I’m told. A woman says she’s been waiting 45 minutes; she just missed the previous bus. Labor is operating free shuttle service to the Capitol elsewhere in the sprawling mall, but a man informs us that the line for that service is “a mile long.”

An empty No. 6 arrives. We fill the bus. Almost as many are standing as are sitting. The bus rolls down E. Washington Avenue without stopping until about 10 blocks away from the Capitol, where it picks up a dozen more passengers.

We deboard near the end of E. Washington. I pass a bank of portable toilets, relieving my mind of one anxiety.

Crowds are streaming around the Capitol sporting picket signs. The throng seems like Middle America with students mixed in. The young people add energy, beating drums, blowing horns and whistles, and leading chants, among them:

·         “It’s disgusting – union busting.”
·         “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Scott Walker’s got to go.”
·         “Kill the bill!”
·         “Down with Walker – up with the people.”

A West Allis man tells me he was surprised by Walker’s ploy to take away the bargaining rights of public-sector employees. “I knew he was anti-union,” he says. “But I didn’t know he was out to kill the unions.”

The man himself, who does not want his name used, is a union member, but not a public employee. Echoing others, he adds, “If this was just about pay and benefits, there wouldn’t be thousands of people here.” At issue, he says, is the survival of public-employee unions. Walker wants to quash their bargaining rights, the raison d'etre for unions

Equainess Price of Racine quips that he came because his job is to support teachers. He is ESP (educational support personnel) for Gateway College in Racine.

“The bill wouldn’t kill me,” he says, “but I know it would hurt many others.”

I look for the Tea Party. I find only isolated groups of counter-demonstrators. Finally, I find their rally, which is breaking up. The pro-Walker people number in the hundreds at best. The anti-Walker people number in the tens of thousands.

There are long lines to enter the Capitol, which is living up to its name as the people’s house. Madison is, of course, no stranger to protests, which hit a crescendo in the 1960s. One difference between then and now is the police. Then they were hostile; now they’re friendly. To prevent overcrowding, police courteously let in only so many demonstrators at a time.

Legions participate in a continuous rally in the rotunda, where speeches and applause echo. Protest signs and banners adorn walls and railings.

On the fourth floor young people sit at a long table in an office working on Macs. They overflow into the hallway. The Teacher Assistant Association, a union consisting of University of Wisconsin grad students, runs this operation, which is part of the protest infrastructure. The association picks up trash inside and outside the Capitol, runs information booths, supplies marshals, feeds social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, produces flyers (including a ubiquitous one here reminding participants, “This is a peaceful protest”), helps coordinate activities and do sundry other chores.

A harried-looking Alex Hanna, a UW-Madison sociology grad student, heads the 24-hour-a day operation, which he admits is “physically taxing.” He says he broke away only once to go home and refresh himself since Tuesday and he has fallen behind on his school work.

At a rally outside, Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin tells the multitude: “Gov. Walker said today on TV that he received 19,000 e-mails that were in support of his legislation. Nineteen thousand. I think I have 19,000 behind me and 20,000 over there, 20,000 over here … and that doesn't include those who are in the Capitol right now.”

The protesters hear promises that they will win and expressions of love for the 14 Democratic senators who left the state to deny Walker a quorum and thus thwart action on his proposal to gut public-employee unions.

The rally breaks up. My son and grandson, who live in Madison, pick me up and we grab a bite to eat.

Photos by Gregory Stanford
To replay slide show, click "labor protest" in bottom left corner, then click play button.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Scott Walker the job slayer

Gov. Scott Walker, who talks big about boosting private-sector jobs in Wisconsin, is so far doing just the opposite: costing the state private-sector jobs. A Milwaukee think tank puts at 10,000 the number of jobs that sector would lose were Walker’s plan to cut compensation for public-sector workers to go into effect.

Yes, you heard right. Cuts in public employment hurt private employment – which is the exact opposite of the mindless mantra beaten into our heads over the last two decades: to wit, cuts in public employment help private employment.

What that mantra ignores is that public-sector pay checks stir the same economic ripples as private-sector pay checks. In other words, $50 spent at the local supermarket from a government payroll has the same impact as $50 spent there from a company payroll. Both equally enable the supermarket to meet its own payroll. The fewer dollars that come in, whether from public or private salaries, the less money the supermarket can spend on its payroll and the more likely the supermarket will have to lay off workers.

Walker is trying to crush the public employees unions in Wisconsin. He is seeking to eviscerate their bargaining rights. His diabolical plan also includes unilaterally reducing the take-home pay of union members by having them step up contributions to their benefits. That element is what an analysis by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future  addresses. The analysis also factors in reduction in pay from planned furloughs

Jack Norman
The institute concludes that Walker’s plan would lead to the the loss of $660 million a year in economic production in the private sector, eliminate $46 million in property taxes or shift them to other taxpayers, noticably boost the state’s unemployment rate and wipe out 9,900 private sector jobs.

Yes, there are a couple of counterarguments, which I put to the institute’s Jack Norman, the author of the report:

Sure, public employees won’t spend as much, but the cuts mean taxpayers will gain spending money. So won’t the state’s taxpayers make up for the loss in expenditures by the state’s public employees?

Well, the idea of the cuts is to reduce the budget deficit. So the savings wouldn’t go back to taxpayers.

In light of the dire budget situation, doesn't Walker have no choice but to enact the cuts, whether they hurt the economy or not?

If he has no choice, why then did he give money away in a special session last month through the enactment of new or expanded tax breaks.

Even before he took office Walker killed a federally financed high speed rail project that would have led to thousands of temporary and permanent jobs for state residents. Despite his highfalutin rhetoric about creating jobs, Walker is starting his governorship as a job killer, not a job booster.

Related reading:
“An Update on State Budget Cuts,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities