Tough economic times in the United States have been affecting citizens for the past three years and more recently, have spilled over to individual state governments. Several states are having a difficult time creating a balanced budget, which is required by federal law. Revenues generated by taxes are down and of course, difficult decisions must be made.
The difficult financial decisions that loom for many states will be the task of newly minted Republican governors and legislatures, who swarmed into office this past November. This past week, the fight over how to balance state budgets has been taken to a new level. Many public officials in several states are targeting their public employees as a means of closing their budget gap.
Wisconsin, a former Democratic stronghold, has a history of being a "laboratory" for democracy. Well, the latest science experiment appears to have created a monster. Republican Governor Scott Walker has introduced a new measure to save the state from financial meltdown.
The proposal from the governor would require state employees to contribute 6% of their pay to their pensions, which is currently at no cost. They would also have their health care premiums more than doubled. Governor Walker promised, in return, he would not lay off any workers. Really? That's how democracy works these days? Incidentally, the governor's new measure would end collective bargaining for state employees, thus diluting the power of labor unions.
I know what you might be thinking at this point. Sacrifices must be made. Perhaps so, but Walker appears to be willing to sacrifice his state employees (largely comprised of teachers) but not big business. The governor approved giving over $117 million in tax breaks to businesses and individuals. (This report can be viewed in PDF form at http://legis.wisconsin.gov/lfb/Misc/2011_01_31Vos&Darling.pdf ).
So, the tax cuts created by Governor Walker must now be filled, in part, by the state workers, who aren't exactly in a position to take this financial hit. Workers in Wisconsin are so angered that thousands called in sick to work and protested in Madison. Many school systems had to cancel classes and a large number of police, firefighters and other emergency personnel exempted by the governor's plan came out to support fellow union members.
The showdown even prompted Democrats in Wisconsin's state legislature to leave the state to delay action on the governor's plans.
This scene has the classic makings of labor versus management and the labor force has to hold the line. If this plan is allowed to succeed, similar measures could be adopted in other states, putting organized labor in a difficult position.
Perhaps Republicans are genuinely trying to fix budget problems, but radically altering the financial income of the state's workers is no way to tackle this. Is it possible the GOP is trying to kill to birds with one stone? It is no secret that many conservatives would love seeing labor unions lose the power that took over a century to accumulate.
Can there be no compromise? Why do hard working (and often underpaid) Americans have to feel the weight of fixing a budget crisis that wasn't their fault? Moreover, will the governor and members of the state legislature "man up" and take the hit with their employees if the plan should pass?
While I do find it cowardly that members of the state legislature would leave the state, I find it repulsive that Governor Walker would cram this plan down the throats of the people.
This nation cannot afford to go back to a time when workers were exploited and uncared for. Will this singular measure do that? No. But it could start the erosion of workers' rights across the country. And this is precisely how it starts -- not taking away the rights in one fell swoop, but whittling them away a piece at a time.