Workers across Wisconsin have continued to pour into Madison today to protest Gov. Scott Walker's plan to dismantle power of the state's unions. Walker recently introduced the Budget Repair Bill, which he says is necessary to help the state deal with its $137 million budget shortfall for 2011. But the move is largely seen as an attack on the state's long-celebrated unions -- some of which got Walker elected.
"This is about balancing the budget," Walker tweeted this week. Later, he made his argument more bluntly to the New York Times. "We're broke," he said from his family home, outside of which angry workers protested and police were forced to close the street.
Walker's bill would strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights and increase their contributions for state health and retirement benefits. Those, of course, are two staples of what's made public employee unions so powerful. The bill cleared the Joint Finance Committee late on Wednesday and is on its way to the state Senate today, with some slight revisions, recounted by Talking Points Memo:
The changes the committee adopted would require all local governments to create civil-service systems similar to the one for the state. It would also allow limited-term employees to keep their benefits. Some limited-term employees have worked for the state for years, and the original version of the bill would have taken away all their health care coverage and retirement benefits.
Progressives have situated Walker's efforts as part of the latest and most aggressive GOP attack on worker's right. Last night on the Rachel Maddow Show, former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, told Maddow:
The argument that this is really about the budget process is phonier than a $3 dollar bill. There is a budget process in the state, I served for ten years in the WIsc state senate. It's a very methodical process and they usually figure it out by July and they have a budget. What [Walker] did last week was say basically, 'I wanna take away all these rights of collective bargaining for people and I want it done within the next five or six days. This is just a direct attack driven by corporate interests in the state and this country that they have been fantasizing about forever, which is to bust the unions. And that's what the agenda is.
Indeed, massive protests have taken over the state capitol. CNN reported that at least 10,000 people gathered in Madison on Wednesday to protest the proposed bill, and many more thousands are expected there today. The Madison Metropolitan School district canceled classes on Wednesday after 40 percent of its employees called in sick in protest of the bill. Teachers and support staff in several other Wisconsin counties have also called in sick in above average numbers. Meanwhile, students have also taken to the streets. In a startling about-face, firefighter and police officers' unions, who threw their support behind Walker during last fall's contentious governor's race, have also joined the protests.
The massive protests drove Republican Rep. Paul Ryan to lambast the protests and compare them to Egypt's massive uprisings. "It's like Cairo has moved to Madison these days," Ryan said, according to TPM. "It's just, all of this demonstration. It's fine, people should be able to express their way, but we've got to get this deficit and debt under control in Madison, if we want to have a good business climate and job creation in Wisconsin."
Back in the fall, I reported from Milwaukee that many feared what Walker might do once he was elected to office since he made several unrelenting promises to do away with health care and attack unions. Seems like he's now making good on those promises.