Tuesday, February 22, 2011

12 Things You Need to Know About the Uprising in Wisconsin

12 Things You Need to Know About the Uprising in Wisconsin

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What's happening in Wisconsin is not complicated. At the beginning of this year, the state was on course to end 2011 with a budget surplus of $120 million. As Ezra Klein explained, newly elected GOP Governor Scott Walker then " signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues (among other things). The new legislation was not offset, and it turned a surplus into a deficit." (Update: please see this note for more detail on the cause of the budget gap.)

Walker then used the deficit he'd created as the justification for assaulting his state's public employees. He used a law cooked up by a right-wing advocacy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC likes to fly beneath the radar, but I described the organization in a 2005 article as "the connective tissue that links state legislators with right-wing think tanks, leading anti-tax activists and corporate money." Similar laws are on the table in Ohio and Indiana.

Walker's bill would strip public employees of the right to bargain collectively for anything but higher pay (and would cap the amount of wage hikes they might end up gaining in negotiations). His intentions are clear -- before assuming office, Walker threatened to decertify the state's employees' unions (until he discovered that the governor doesn't have that power).

But he's spinning the measure as something else -- a bitter pill state workers must swallow in order to save Wisconsin's government. So the first things you need to know are:

1. Wisconsin's public workers have already "made sacrifices to help balance the budget, through 16 unpaid furlough days and no pay increases the past two years," according to the Associated Press. The unions know their members are going to have to make concessions on benefits, but they rightly see the assault on their fundamental right to negotiate as an act of war.

2. There are already 13 states that restrict public workers' bargaining rights and it hasn't helped their bottom lines. As Ed Kilgore notes, "eight non-collective-bargaining states face larger budget shortfalls than either Wisconsin or Ohio," and " three of the 13 non-collective bargaining states are among the eleven states facing budget shortfalls at or above 20%."

3. This isn't just about public employees. What even a majority of the protesters don't know is that Walker's law would also place all of the state's Medicaid funding in the hands of the governor. State senator Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton -- one of the Dem law-makers who fled the state to block a vote on the bill -- told local media that this amounted to "substantial Medicaid changes" that put "the governor, all of a sudden... in charge of Medicaid, which is SeniorCare, which is BadgerCare ...and he has never once said what he intends to do” with those programs. But the provision led journalist Suzie Madrak to conclude that "the end game for all this is to defund state Medicaid programs and make it impossible to serve as part of the new health care safety net."

4. Health-care costs, rather than workers' greed, are what has driven up the price of employees' benefits. But generally speaking, those public sector health-care costs have grown at a slower clip than in the private sector.

5. Public employees' pensions account for just 6 percent of state budgets.

This has nothing to do with the state's fiscal picture. Aside from potentially undermining Wisconsin's public health-care system, it's really about destroying the last bastion of unionism in the American economy: public employees. As Addie Stan wrote on AlterNet's front page:

Walker is carrying out the wishes of his corporate master, David Koch, who calls the tune these days for Wisconsin Republicans. Walker is just one among many Wisconsin Republicans supported by Koch Industries -- run by David Koch and his brother, Charles -- and Americans For Prosperity, the astroturf group founded and funded by David Koch. The Koch brothers are hell-bent on destroying the labor movement once and for all.

Consider these facts:

6. Last year, more working people belonged to a union in the public sector (7.9 million) than in the private (7.4 million), despite the fact that corporate America employs five times the number of wage-earners. 37 percent of government workers belong to a union, compared with just 7 percent of private-sector employees.

7. Whether in the public or private sector, union workers earn, on average, 20 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts. They also have richer retirement and health benefits -- the “union compensation premium” rises to almost 30 percent when you include those bennies.

That workers can still negotiate from a position of strength somewhere in the US is simply unacceptable to the right, and that's what this is about. As you might expect, the tool they're using in their campaign is a pack full of lies and distortions about public employees. Here are some answers to those falsehoods:

8. Public sector workers have, on average, more experience and higher levels of education than their counterparts in the private sector (they are twice as likely to have a college degree).

9. When you adjust for those factors, they make, on average, 4 percent less than their private-sector counterparts.

10. Like any group of workers with a high union density, they have better benefits, on average. But even including those benefits, state and local employees still make less in total compensation than they would doing the same work in the private sector.

11. In 2007, the average pension for a public sector worker was $22,000. Not exactly caviar dreams.

12. Many public employees are not eligible for Social Security -- those pensions, and whatever they can put away on their own, is all that they'll have in their golden years.

(Unless otherwise indicated, you can find links to the data for all of the above in my piece, "Right-Wingers Using Public Employees as 21st-Century Welfare Queens.")

The Right has made great political progress getting Americans to ask the question: "How come that guy’s getting what I don’t have?" It’s the crux of the politics of grievance. Progressives need to get Americans to ask a different question: "What’s keeping me from getting what that guy has?" At least part of the answer is the Right’s decades-long assault on private sector workers’ ability to organize, and the latest battle is being waged in Wisconsin.

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