What In Tarnation Is Going On In Wisconsin?

Perhaps taking a cue from the Middle East, this week, shit got real in the Middle West, specifically in the state of Wisconsin. What's going on?

Republican Governor Scott Walker and the Republican State Senate majority are trying to pass a bill that will remove collective bargaining rights from public employees' unions. They're doing this in the name of balancing the state's budget, as the state is (like many states) painfully in the red. Walker and the Republicans have suggested that the road to fiscal buoyancy is paved the angry Star Wars-themed protest signs of public employees and has proposed that public employees to contribute dramatically more to their own pensions and to limit their unions' ability to advocate for their members to only matters of wage increases. Opponents to the measure point out that this will only eliminate 10% of Wisconsin's projected budgetary shortfall over the next several years and that Walker's been gunning for unions since he took office. Teachers, firefighters, social workers, and other state employees' unions will have most of their power removed by legislation, which some argue is unconstitutional. Teachers and state employees are angry, and now, as we speak, tens of thousands of Wisconsin public employees and their supporters and who knows how many Tea Party counter protesters have descended upon the state capitol in Madison. Explains J of Madison, whose real name I'm not going to use,

Scott Walker has loaded a budgetary bill with loads of egregious shit; the most egregious of the shit present in the bill stipulates that public worker unions lose their ability to bargain collectively for anything other than wages. Moreover, any increases in the wage rate they would receive must not exceed the cost of living—the only way this can be circumvented is by putting the issue to a referendum to the voters. Wisconsin would become, for public workers, a "right to work" state where employees would no longer be able to collect dues via paychecks for the union, enable workers to opt out of the union without paying dues but still receive any benefits won by the union. Workers couldn't bargain collectively for work conditions and other benefits, and, more importantly, unions would need to enroll new members constantly. They'd have no continuity in membership and they'd be unable to devote any effort and energy to politicking.

Republicans attempted to force a vote on the bill, and, to prevent a vote from occurring, all of the Democrats in the Wisconsin State Senate fled the state and are currently in an "undisclosed location" (although, they should probably be a little bit more careful about how incognito they are, they were spotted in the Windy City dining at a famous downtown steakhouse on Thursday night and everyone kind of knows that they're here). With the Democrats gone, the state senate doesn't have a quorum and thus cannot vote on the bill. The leader of the Senate Republicans has dispatched State Troopers to look for them, but, seeing as they're out of state in a totally secret location that is not at all Chicago, they're outside the Troopers' jurisdiction. (This is just like an episode of The Dukes of Hazard, but with elongated O's and bubblers rather than southern accents.) Governor Walker has pleaded with Democrats to return and Senate Republicans say that there will be no negotiating on the bill and that it will pass as is.

The unions are angry and mobilized, counter protesters are streaming into Madison, Republicans insist there will be no compromise, and the Democrats are smoking cigars at Gibson's. Meanwhile, the pension system is unsustainable in its current iteration, and the state government would rather default on payments made to its employees than to the financial institutions that own the bonds they're so afraid of not being able to pay, teachers are threatening to walk out, and schools are threatening to discipline teachers who continue to call in sick to work. What we have is Madness in Mad-city. America's Scaryland. The Badgered State.

Joking aside, what's happening in Wisconsin right now is significant not only for the people it directly effects, but also for the labor movement in America, and for progressives who identify themselves as pro-labor. Enrollment in private sector unions has been declining in the last decades and if Walker's able to legislate the public employees' union away, this could set the stage for other states, like New York, California, and Illinois to similarly strip organized labor of its bargaining power by enacting laws. While it's trendy to put down unions and organized labor and point out that 10% of the country is still unemployed and public employees in Wisconsin make a pretty good living, anyway, we shouldn't forget that organized labor brought us the weekend, child labor laws, the minimum wage, overtime pay, the 40-hour workweek, and workplace safety regulations. Wisconsin also boasts some of the best public elementary and high schools in the country, partially due to the fact that teaching is an attractive profession there, whereas if they were compensated less generously, the best and brightest may be forced to look at earning a wage to support a decent standard of living in a different industry. With a decrease in quality of teachers, quality of education will decline, America will gradually continue its downward march into mass Palin-style proud stupidity, workers could be even more powerless and at the mercy of their employers. What could this mean for maternity leave for public employees? What about long term job security?

While something must be done to address the state-by-state budget crisis, the way to do it is not to further disempower the middle class. This goes beyond pension funding and union enrollment; the implications of what Walker is trying to do could have disastrous and far reaching consequences in Wisconsin and the rest of the country.