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GOP Rams Through Anti-Union Provisions Without Quorum; People Seize Capitol

09 Mar

In what can generously be described as a highly dramatic day in Madison, the GOP-controlled Senate stripped down pending legislation of the overtly financial elements to include the anti-union provisions stripping public-sector workers of most of their collective bargaining rights and organizational power. This was done to try to sidestep the requirement stipulating that the Wisconsin legislature must have a quorum present to vote on any legislation that has fiscal implications. With the prolonged absence of the 14 state Democratic Senators, the apparently desperate GOP Senators took matters into their own hands, quite likely illegally, and passed a bill, 18-1, essentially aimed at gutting the union rights and political power of the state’s public-sector unions and their members Wednesday night.

This precipitated a rapid, massive wave of public protest in Madison Wednesday night, with thousands of people taking to the streets on foot and in vehicles to protest the draconian anti-union bill, which Governor Scott Walker (Tea Party/R) is expected to sign into law and soon. There are reports that some protesters entered the well-guarded capitol by smashing windows, while many hundreds of other protesters stormed the capitol doors after police ceded ground and let the throngs in, chanting “We’re not leaving. Not this time.” There is also the mounting threat of strikes, including a general strike, as throngs of thousands of workers flood the capitol area, and anger has surged. There seems no end in sight to this increasingly tense struggle in defense of workers’ rights.

Via the Wisconsin State Journal:

Some union leaders interviewed Wednesday night at the Madison Labor Temple indicated that strikes — which are illegal in Wisconsin for public-employee unions — are possible.

“Senate Republicans have exercised the nuclear option to ram through their bill attacking Wisconsin’s working families in the dark of night,” said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO. “Tonight’s events have demonstrated they will do or say anything to pass their extreme agenda that attacks Wisconsin’s working families.”

Regardless of how one feels about stripping workers of their rights and their allegedly causing (in oft-refuted charges) Wisconsin’s state coffers to bleed white, it strains credulity to the breaking point to think that the stripped-down bill somehow does not have fiscal implications. The conservative Weekly Standard implicitly acknowledges so in its, perhaps generous, assessment of the possible “benefits” for the state in imposing wage and benefit cuts on public-sector workers:

The legislation being voted on tonight has few changes from the bill as initially proposed. The bill removes a refinancing provision and doesn’t count savings during this fiscal year accrued by requiring public employees to pay more for their pensions and health insurance.* But it would still save the state $300 million over the next two years by requiring state employees to contribute about 5% of income toward their pensions and by requiring state workers to pay for about 12% of their health insurance premiums. It would also save $1.44 billion by requiring public employees in school districts and municipalities to pay 5% of their salaries toward their pensions and by removing collective bargaining for benefits, thus giving school districts and municipalities the option of requiring their employees to pay about 12% for their health insurance premiums.

Clearly, these issues and the “savings,” regardless of the eventual number, would affect the state’s budget, making the bill nothing if not fiscal in nature. To say the very least, it strains credulity to the breaking point to think otherwise. What will transpire in an expected legal challenge, I do not know. However, I do know that this result reveals what a good many of us already knew–that the real targets were the unionized public-sector workforce, their union rights, and their political power. The obvious fiscal implications may be relevant for any legal challenges that might come. It would be ironic for Wisconsin right-wingers if they did, for the rhetorical smoke screen for their anti-union thrust would be more than revealed to have been hooey. Indeed, it might in good part be their undoing, for it was Walker and his fellow Tea Party Republicans who repeatedly attempted to fixate people on an alleged connection between public-sector workers’ pay and benefits and the state’s budget shortfall. He made workers’ pay and benefits a fiscal issue from the get-go. Yet, in their haste to smash unions, the Wisconsin GOP may have overreached by not only inciting popular anger and opposition toward Walker’s proposals, but also by trying to ram through his blatantly anti-union bill by ignoring long-established state legislative procedures.

Stay tuned for more on this crucial, developing story. You can also watch the live feed from the loud, vibrant, and tumultuous capitol building here. (N.B. The feed has been intermittent tonight, for whatever reason.)

–Jason Kozlowski

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