While the national media has been focused on the protests in the Middle East there is some serious civil unrest going on much closer to home. In several states across the nation state governors are seeking legislation to cut the pay and benefits of their respective public employees. Governors in New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Florida and others have said that their states are in dire fiscal straights and the only way out is to reduce the salaries and retirement benefits of their public employees.
Nowhere is the unrest more volatile than in the state of Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker (R) announced that he would seek legislation that would not only break the contracts negotiated by the public employees’ union; it would curtail their collective bargaining rights preventing them from negotiating benefits, hours and working conditions as well as their ability to strike. His rationale is that the state has serious fiscal problems and the only way to fix them is to cut salaries and benefits.
As expected, Wisconsin state employees are incensed. They point out that when Governor Walker took office a mere two months ago he inherited a $121 million dollars surplus. They point out that if in fact there is any shortfall it is because immediately after taking office Governor Walker implemented a massive tax cut initiative for the rich. Workers claim that he wants to pay for those tax cuts by cutting union salaries and benefits and in the process break the union.
Six days ago the protest in Madison started with a few hundred people. Yesterday over 30,000 people marched on the capital building while tens of thousands marched in cities all over the state. More are expected to show up today when the legislation is put up for vote.
The fact that union busting efforts such as the one in Wisconsin are occurring virtually simultaneously across the country begs the question: is this a nationally organized movement on the part of the Republican Party to break the backs of the public employee unions? Many union members think that is exactly what is going on. The governors argue that unlike the federal government they are required to balance their budgets and they are hamstrung by the overly generous employee benefit packages that in some cases allow employees to receive more in retirement than they did while working.
The unions have long been the backbone of the Democratic Party. Unions are why we have a middle class, child labor laws and minimum wage. If you break the unions you do serious damage to the Democrats. In a recent interview Karl Rove pointed out that in the past two years union membership has dropped by over 650,000. Said Rove “if unions continue to lose a half million members a year, that’s that many less members paying dues which go toward Democratic Party candidates. No question that would have an effect on elections.”
Republicans rode into office with one single message: they would cut spending and increase jobs. Governors across the country appear to be united in keeping that promise. And it appears that they have focused on the unions. How Democrats respond may hold the key to their future.