sparking in wisconsin

OK, it’s not quite a revolution. No bullets are flying for starters and no one’s calling for Obama to leave. But for the U.S.? This is pretty big — we haven’t had protests of this size, nor covered to this extent in a long time. And there are connections with Egypt — whether real or perceived, in the end those connections are part of what is playing out now. Volunteers Of America has the goods with a scathing summary:

Here’s the deal, in case you’ve missed the news: Wisconsin’s newly-minted Republican governor, Scott Walker, has wreathed himself in folly during the slender six weeks he has disgraced the office.

First, he imposed a series of ridiculous proposals on the state, which do nothing whatsoever to help the economy but cost upwards of $140 million.

Second, he ignored the judgment of the state’s fiscal bureau – whose responsibilities are akin to the Congressional Budget Office – which said the state’s financial situation was not nearly dire enough to require “austerity measures,” and would in all likelihood finish the year with a surplus…said surplus prediction, it should be noted, got screwed out of existence by Walker’s absurd and expensive policy initiatives.

Third, and in fulfillment of what appears to be a life-long loathing of anything relating to union or public-sector workers, Walker demanded that any and all collective bargaining rights be abolished, and that all state employees and union members eat what amounts to a massive and unprecedented pay and benefits cut across the board…cuts which, by the by, will do almost nothing to stimulate Wisconsin’s economy, but will fulfill Mr. Walker’s ambition to destroy union labor in the state.

There’s quite a few comparisons of this situation to the ones in the Middle East, for an idea of how this is being framed, rightly or wrongly, as a similar scenario.

Here’s more detail on how Walker broke the state’s budget: Wisconsin Gov. Walker Ginned Up Budget Shortfall To Undercut Worker Rights

You can read the fiscal bureaus report here (PDF). It holds that “more than half” of the new shortfall comes from three of Walker’s initiatives:

  • $25 million for an economic development fund for job creation, which still holds $73 million because of anemic job growth.
  • $48 million for private health savings accounts — a perennial Republican favorite.
  • $67 million for a tax incentive plan that benefits employers, but at levels too low to spur hiring.

In essence, public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda. “The provisions in his bill do two things simultaneously,” Norman says. “They remove bargaining rights, and having accomplished that, make changes in the benefit packages.” That’s how Walker’s plan saves money. And when it’s all said and done, these workers will have lost their bargaining rights going forward in perpetuity.

The really amazing thing? There’s no budget emergency:

“Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control,” says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future — a public interest think tank. “He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts… so he could rush through these other changes.”

“The state of Wisconsin has not reached the point at which austerity measures are needed,” Norman adds.

I’d be mad as hell if I were in Wisconsin, too. I’m mad as hell as it is. This tactic — pushing through tax cuts and then rushing in further draconian measures when the budget breaks down completely — has been playing out since last year’s elections. Which, by the way, were clearly based on a demand for job growth. Not this kind of absurdist theater.

The reaction has been quite astonishing, however. Instead of folding or holding token protests, people got organized: Eyewitness to history: Democrats shut down the Wisconsin Senate

As tens of thousands of demonstrators surrounded the building, a small orange card handed to me by Steve Walters, dean of the Capitol press corps, allowed me access to the extraordinary events taking place behind the scenes.

I was there among the protesters, packed so thickly into the building’s corridors that it took me more than a half hour to get my press pass and make it back to the Senate, which was set to vote on Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill,” which would impose unilateral changes on state workers, strip most state and local public employees of their collective bargaining rights, and impose rules changes that could likely spell the demise of the unions altogether.

The meeting was supposed to have begun at 11 a.m. but the Senate’s 14 Democratic members were nowhere to be found, and indeed, were rumored to have fled the city.

By fleeing the state, the Democratic state senators deprived the Republicans of a quorum. They are now one short and so cannot vote on the measures before them.

Missing Wisconsin Dem speaks: We’re MIA until GOP drops assault on workers rights

I just got off the phone with Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson, one of the Democrats who has left the capitol in order to stall the GOP’s plan to roll back the bargaining rights of public employees. Speaking to me by cell phone from an undisclosed location, Larson said he and his fellow Democrats would not return until the GOP takes its assault on organizing rights “off the table.”

“Each of us is in a secure location,” he told me, confirming that they were not all together but were monitoring events on the Web and on Twitter. Larson refused to say whether he and his fellow Dems had left the state, as some have speculated.

“We’re going to be staying away until we hear that they are taking the right to organize seriously,” Larson continued, referring to Republicans. “They’re going after 50 years of history in one week. Until they take that off the table, it’s a non-starter.”

Wisconsin was, by the way, the first state in 1959 to grant collective bargaining rights to all its state employees.

Walker does seem more concerned with union busting than actual budget resolution: State’s largest union would give in on benefit to retain bargaining rights

Marty Beil, head of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, which represents some 23,000 blue-collar state workers, said his group would agree to pay more of their pension contributions and health insurance benefits.

“We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state’s budget into balance, but we will not be denied our God-given right to join a real union . . .  we will not – I repeat we will not – be denied our rights to collectively bargain,” Beil said in a statement.

So we’ll see how the governor reacts to that.

Read through this. Wisconsin may be just the start. Vision: Across the Country, People Are Rising Up to Fight for Change.

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