User-agent: * Allow: / Trenton Butcher Block: The Battle of Wisconsin Rages On

"Our Liberties We Prize, Our Rights We Will Defend."

Commentary on national and local events from the standpoint of a Trenton city resident and state worker.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Battle of Wisconsin Rages On

Earlier this week thousands of Wisconsin public employees occupied the state capital in Madison.  The result was quite unlike what Republican governor Scott Walker intended when he had a bill introduced to make workers pay more for benefits and eliminate the right of public employees to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with their employers through their unions.  He expected a quick rubber stamp vote for the measure since his party controls both houses of the legislature.  What he got instead was an event of international proportions.  Union activists have come from all over the country to assist in the occupation of the state capital building and reporters have come from all over the world to cover the events.  For instance, this photo was posted by the Manchester Guardian all the way from the United Kingdom.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker thought he was Billy Bad Ass.   The governor cut taxes last year, despite the fact that the state is operating at a deficit.  Governor Walker thought he'd out-Christie our own Governor Chris Christie, who has gained a national reputation for ruthlessly pushing around unions representing government employees.  He introduced legislation to make workers pay more for health insurance and pension benefits.  Nothing unusual here, this is being done all over the country as the recession caused state budgets to go into the red and politicians look for a way out that does not involve raising taxes.

Governor Walker went one step further, and decided to try to emasculate the unions which represent public workers.  His bill would deny unions the right to negotiate contracts with management covering wages and working conditions.  Unions would no longer be able to collect dues through deductions from employee paychecks and unions would have to conduct elections each year to maintain their certification as representatives of each workplace.  This law would effectively destroy the power of unions to represent workers.  It would apply to all public workers except police, which would retain their right to negotiate collectively.

Walker thought the move was going to be a pushover.  After all, it was his  bill and his party, which supports the measure, controls both houses of the legislature.  He overplayed his hand because he wasn't counting on two things.  First, the unions were not ready to quietly walk away into the dustbin of history and secondly the Democratic lawmakers figured out a way to outmaneuver the majority party.

The Republicans first tried to introduce the legislation in the Senate, but they couldn't  because all the Democratic senators left the state and vowed not to return until the governor agrees to negotiate with them about removing the language baring unions from the workplace.  The governor says this point is non-negotiable and sent the state troopers out to arrest the senators and bring them back to the state house so they could vote.

Since the senators were in Illinois, they could not be arrested by Wisconsin authorities.  Because they did not come to the chamber, the senate could not conduct business because they did not have a quorum.  This stalled the measure until the senators come back.  Wisconsin does not have the filibuster in their senate, so the only way the Democrats could stop the matter was to boycott the meeting.

The measure was supposed to come up in the assembly, which is also being boycotted by the Democrats.  If the lone Independent assemblyman shows up, the Republicans can consider the bill and pass it in the lower chamber.  However, if he does not show up, they have the same problem as in the quorum, so they can't vote there either.  As far as I can tell, nothing happened in the assembly yet either.

At the same time all this was going on, union workers occupied the state capital building and the surrounding grounds.  In order to prevent the governor from removing them without the use of excessive force, the unions have kept the area packed with workers both night and day.  (Thank God, this is not Egypt, we don't use bullets and tanks to clear out mass demonstrations.)  Unions from all over the country, most notably the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have sent in workers to keep the building packed while others go home for rest breaks.

All this has attracted national attention.  The protest caught the eye of President Obama who sent his expression of support.  Of course the Wisconsin governor told the president to but out of state business.

How is this playing out and who is winning the propaganda war.  Governor Walker so far has come off looking like a fool.  He has resorted to wild stunts like sending the state troopers out to arrest senators and has threatened to call out the National Guard should the unions call a general strike.  He has been powerless to move the measure forward.

The unions on the other hand have gained a national forum to educate the public about the value of organized labor and the need for unions in the government workplace.  They have shown that the Republicans are not unstoppable if workers choose to stand together.  They have served as an example for workers across the country so they will be motivated to act should their politicians decide to try to destroy unions in their states.

What is happening in Wisconsin is important for New Jersey workers.   Here too, the governor has been using legislation to set the terms and conditions of employment.  So far Christie has managed to be more successful than Walker because rather than trying to ban unions outright, he has been moving in piecemeal fashion to define the work arrangement through legislation so there is little for unions to negotiate.

For instance, Christie has proposed drastic increases in health insurance premiums and pension costs for public employees while at the same time reducing benefits.  He hopes to accomplish this through legislation, not at the bargaining table.  Unlike Wisconsin, our Democrats so far have lapdogs for the governor, largely because the governor has Senate President Stephen Sweeney as a messenger boy.  For instance, Sweeney, who is president of the Ironworkers union has introduced legislation to increase health insurance costs, and his buddy, Senator Donald Norcross, who is president of the state International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers introduced a bill which passed both houses that would require all future state employees to live in New Jersey.  Although other Democratic legislators have initially objected to some of the program being fed to Sweeney by the governor, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and others usually come around to support the senate president's proposals.

Why do Norcross and Sweeney want to sell us out if they union presidents.  The short answer is that the governor bought them out by pushing through economic development projects that provide work to construction workers in South Jersey.  For instance, work is expected to resume shortly on the Revel Entertainment casino in Atlantic City.  The project was stalled until the state agreed to advance a loan with taxpayer money equal to 20 percent of the value of the finished project.  The governor also recently sighed legislation to subsidize construction of a gas-fired electrical generating plant in Deptford and has promised $100 million in tax credits to any companies willing to manufacturing wind turbines in a state-owned industrial park in Paulsboro.

Perhaps these aren't bribes in the traditional sense because neither Sweeney nor Norcross are personally enriched by them.  But the governor has certainly used the power of his office to buy the loyalty of two Democratic senators and break union solidarity.

What is to be done?  We can only thank the Wisconsin Democratic legislators and the state's unions for what they have done.  So far, Christie has stuck to petty antics like the battle of Lincoln's Birthday (see previous post).  But since he hasn't even begun to negotiate a new contract with the CWA, there's no telling what he had in mind for July.  If Walker was successful, no doubt it would have been very possible that he would have tried to outlaw unions here too.  Make no doubt about it, Christie supports what Walker is doing.  If you don't believe me, see what Christie said in this article from

Since Walker has made a fool out of himself,.this is far less likely now.

What is going on in Wisconsin is part of a broader trend where governors aree trying to use legislation to snatch power from unions so they can cut benefits and hold down wages.  Politicians see workers and unions as being weak and that taking them on is the logical place to find more money for state services without raising taxes.  For more on this, see this article from CNN.Com.

We need to keep the heat on.  Force the governor to negotiate with us, rather than trying to legislate our benefits.  We also need to show the Democratic legislators in this side what side their bread is buttered on.
We can't replace all of them.  There's no need to.  In order to bring them around to our side, all we need to do is knock out Sweeney and Norcross in the elections in November.  I haven't checked, but if anybody is running against them in the June primary, you should vote for the opponent, no matter who they are.  New Jersey has a sore loser law and once a candidate loses a primary election, they can't run in the general election either.  And of course, if Sweeney and Norcross survive the primary, we must vote Republican and get them out.  True, the Republicans will also be hostile to us, but they will lack the power and union connections that Sweeney and Norcross have.  They would just be greenhorn freshman senators with little influence.  And of course, we can replace them with Democrats during the next senate race.

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