The uprisings in the Middle East have captured the attention of the world, but in the U.S. an equally important protest has also begun to grab headlines. Public servants–teachers, nurses, firefighters and many others–are taking to the streets of Wisconsin to protest pending legislation that will strip away decades of hard-won workers' rights.
According to Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) “It's like Cairo has moved to Madison…” The congressman has characterized the peaceful demonstrations as “riots”, an attempt to discredit the public employees. But nothing could be further from the reality on the ground.
Wisconsin, like many other states, is having budget problems. The newly elected governor, Scott Walker, a conservative Republican, lays the blame at the feet of state employees. He wants to slash their benefits and pensions and more ominously, he's proposed legislation that will strip the public employees unions of the right to collective bargaining. Ironically, Wisconsin was the first state to grant collective bargain rights to state employees. (This CNN article analyzes the importance of collective bargaining forÂ the American middle class.)
Some claim that Walker has ginned up the state's books to exaggerate the deficit so he can use it as a pretext to break the unions, a gift to his corporate backers. According to Wisconsin's budget office, the state was running a surplus until Walker, soon after taking office, pushed through a series of corporate tax cuts that will add over $100 million to Wisconsinâ€™s budget deficit over the next two years.
Yesterday, a reported 30,000 people rallied in Madison, the state capital, to protest the pending vote. Other demonstrations were held across the state. Larger protests are expected today.
Is this simply an issue of “spoiled” workers trying to preserve their perks or is there more at stake here?
Most of the benefits that American workers enjoy–minimum wage, safe working conditions, the 40 hour work week, paid holidays, sick leave, paid vacation–are a direct result of the labor movement. Union negotiations set the standard and private industry followed their lead.
An attack on unions is really an attack on the beleaguered middle class.Â State workers–the people that put out fires, teach our kids, respond to emergencies, pick up the trash, repair the roads–deserveÂ thanks, not vilification. Now they've been pushed to the edge and they're fighting back, drawing a crucial line in the sand.
Should Wisconsin's civil servants lose this battle, it will embolden other states to follow suit; Ohio and New Jersey are watching closely. Can corporations be far behind in demanding more work for less pay? A bill just introduced in Nevada seeks to eliminate the $8.25 minimum wage. Will America compete with China by legally paying workers $2 an hour? It's not as far-fetched as it sounds.
For all you working stiffs out there, it's time to take some action. Show your support by joining the Protect Wisconsin Families Facebook page. Follow the breaking news on Twitter. Unions are not the enemy. They deserve our support.