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Justified Outrage in Wisconsin – Support in Connecticut

As the United States has argued for South Africa, Poland and now Egypt, unions are a basic part of democratic society. Yet that is the principle under attack by Governor Walker in Wisconsin now.

“The Essence of Democracy” William B. Gould IV  former Chair, NLRB  & professor, Stanford Univ.

This week CEA members joined with fellow unionists in Connecticut to say that Governor Walker’s declaration of war against public employees in Wisconsin is an outrage and an assault on all public employees and their unions. But for teachers in Wisconsin and their colleagues around the country this may well be the last straw – a sordid high point in a long and relentless assault on America’s educators and their unions.

For most of  last week the media portrayed Governor Walker, elected in November as the Tea Party endorsed candidate, as David in a David and Goliath struggle against the evil recalcitrant public employee unions trying to bring the lavish benefits and pensions under control in a state that is broke. He also insisted that in addition to financial demands, which add up to 7-8% reductions in salaries, he needed to emasculate the bargaining rights of most of the employees (police and firefighters are excluded presumptively because they supported his election although this has been disputed).

Over the weekend the unions including the teachers acceded to the demands of the governor on health insurance and pension contribution. In return they urged the governor to leave their bargaining rights intact. The governor refused to budge leaving no doubt as to his real agenda: to croak the unions.

His close ties to the billionaire conservative David Koch were pretty much confirmed today when it was revealed that Governor Walker had accepted a call from someone impersonating David Koch.

The call lasted 20 minutes and has been posted on the internet today and covered on network news this evening.  It was obvious that he thought he was talking to a confidante. For example, he revealed that they had considered sending “troublemakers” in to disrupt the demonstrations, but then thought better of it and opted to allow the demonstrations to quiet down knowing that the press would lose interest. Walker revealed in great detail his options to force the Democrats to return to the capital and his ace in the hole sending out 6000 layoff notices by the end of the week. In an incredible moment of hubris, he compared himself to Ronald Reagan who showed great toughness when he fired the air traffic controllers, which led eventually, according to Governor Walker, to the fall of the Berlin Wall! This is a man with delusions of grandeur – the most dangerous of adversaries, a true believer.

Here are some facts about teachers in Wisconsin from the Teacher Portal:

Total Expenditures: $8,654,346,758
Teacher Expenditures: $2,638,094,048
Percent Spent on Teachers: 30%

Starting Salary: $25,222

Average Salary: $46,390

Average Teacher Salary Rank: 20th
Starting Teacher Salary Rank: 49th
Salary raise last year: 4.7%
Salary raise over 10 years: 21.5%

It does not take a labor studies scholar to conclude that Wisconsin teachers have probably bargained improved health benefits and pension over salary.

What about the status of the Wisconsin pension system? Yesterday, Huffington Post reported that Wisconsin’s Pension fund is among the nation’s healthiest.
“Wisconsin had about $77 billion in total pension liabilities in 2008. But according to that same Pew study, those liabilities were 99.67 percent “funded,” giving Wisconsin one of the four-highest of such ratios in the nation.”

The problem is not that the pension system in Wisconsin is in trouble, the problem is that they and we have a pension at all.

This an ideological battle facilitated by a fiscal crisis whose cause lies on Wall Street, not in the union halls of public sector unions. Nor is this in any  way about shared sacrifice as witnessed by the willingness of teachers as well as other state employees to take the hit even knowing that the new governor gave away over $100 million in tax cuts mostly to wealthy interests evaporating the projected surplus left by the previous governor.
President Obama, to his credit, recognized union busting when he saw it. Arne Duncan followed suit on CNN in his customary circumspect manner falling short of uttering “union busting”.
In a national poll conducted by USA Today/Gallup, when asked, “Would you favor or oppose a law in your state taking away some collective bargaining rights of most public unions, including the state teachers union?” 

The poll found 61% would oppose a law in their state similar to such a proposal in Wisconsin, compared with 33% who would favor such a law.

I opened this post with a thought from Professor Gould, so let me close with his final words:

The answer is not to destroy the democratic fabric and the political opposition, but rather to engage in dialogue. In California and New York, Democratic governors now approach the bargaining table with pension and health care reform demands, a tough-love version of collective bargaining.

But collective bargaining there must be- — not a single-minded devotion to the interests of the most fortunate. That is why Wisconsin workers are right on the issues in Madison — and why the emulation of Governor Walker by other Republican governors is a step backward away from the civilized world. The unions have made a stand for free people.

This is a fight worth having.

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