As the lone Wisconsin-based contributor to Inequalities, I have been remiss in not writing about the ongoing protests here in Madison. Here is what’s going on.
The recently inaugurated Republican Governor, Scott Walker, inherited a state budget that was expected to end the current fiscal year in surplus. As a first order of business, Walker called a special session of the legislature in which it passed business tax cuts and a health care bill that lowers net tax revenues. Then, just 8 days ago, Gov. Walker sent a letter to state employees explaining that:
In the current fiscal year which ends on June 30, 2011, we face a budget deficit of $136.7 million…Today, I am introducing a Budget Repair Bill to address our current fiscal year deficit…The Budget Repair Bill will include a number of reform measures focused on bringing government employee benefits closer to the private sector…
This Budget Repair Bill would impose new and significant mandatory public worker contributions to pension funds and health care premiums, even though they are, if anything, under-compensated when compared to the private sector. But the bill would also strip public workers (excluding police and fire fighters) of rights to bargain collectively on anything other than wages. And even then, the most that could be won through wage-bargaining are wages that keep up with inflation; an increase that outstrips inflation would have to be approved by a state-wide referendum. (There is more bad stuff in the bill, but these are the proposals that have sparked the protests.)
Here’s where it gets interesting. Walker had hoped to get a vote on the bill last Thursday, and any vote would have resulted in its passage given the Republican majorities in both the State Senate and the State House. But despite their majority, the Senate Republicans need at least one Senate Democrat to show up for the vote in order to secure the quorum required to decide financial matters. And on Thursday morning, all 14 Democrats in the Senate left the state. Gov. Walker reportedly sent the State Police after them, but the police are not permitted to cross state lines in pursuit. Since then, the 14 have appeared on various news shows to give interviews from “undisclosed locations.” Walker has said in interviews that he expects them to abandon their “stunt” this week, but the Democrats have said that they are united and willing to go weeks if that’s what it takes to get Walker to come to the negotiating table.
As for the protests themselves, they have been remarkable. Today’s New York Times reports that “The demonstrations have been more organized than organic…” but this is nonsense. Yes, there has been organizing, but at any point during the day you can find hundreds of people streaming up State Street toward the Capitol while hundreds stream away. The other day I was walking toward the Capitol and felt dismay as I noticed the heavy stream of people walking against me. “I missed it,” I lamented. But when I arrived, the crowd around the Capitol Square was enormous, and the crowd inside was as large and boisterous as they have been since the beginning of last week. In America these days, you don’t get tens of thousands of people in protest day-in and day-out without tremendous bottom-up, “organic” enthusiasm. That is what we are seeing in here in Madison.
Yesterday there was a rather sad attempt by supporters of Gov. Walker to stage a counter-protest. By the time I arrived at the Capitol in late afternoon, most counter-protesters had left (their rally began at noon), and the few who remained seemed keenly aware that they were making no difference at all (I interpreted this from their somewhat sheepish half-smiles in response to the counter-counter-protesting they experienced). The New York Times article also reports that “At times, the two sides seemed to talk past each other. The Governor’s supporters said state workers needed to accept increases in their pension and health care costs, just as other Americans have.” But it then immediately goes on accurately to report that Union folks have said they’ll accept the pension/benefits cuts in order to protect collective bargaining. So what the NYT portrays as two sides talking past each is really just misinformation on the part of Walker supporters. That said, Gov. Walker certainly knows that the Unions have offered concessions, but he seems to be dismissing them out of hand.
It’s almost noon here in Madison, which means there will be another rally beginning on the Capitol Square very soon. We are also expecting a winter storm (right now we’ve got freezing rain), so today’s actions may be smaller and briefer than those of the past few days. But there will certainly continue to be large and vocal crowds inside the Capitol building for days. These protesters have been fueled by the world-wide support they are receiving, as well as by pizza by Ian’s on State Street, which says callers from California, Boston, Egypt, etc., have purchased more than $2,500 in pizza to be delivered to pro-union folks inside the Capitol Dome. (Here’s the chalk board they’re using to keep track of where donations have come from.) I myself donated two pies last night.
That’s it for now. Feel free to use the comments section to post updates, questions, and words of support. I’ll be posting updates there periodically too. You might also wish to follow the tweets of the Mother Jones reporter on the ground, @AndrewKroll.