Unrest in… Wisconsin?

A protestor's sign in Madison, comparing Governor Walker to ex-president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak.

Typically, when someone says the word “Wisconsin,” I don’t think of protests, civil unrest, and accusations of a governor’s similarity to Hosni Mubarak. But over the last few days, the state’s public workers have reacted strongly to Republican governor Scott Walker’s recent plans to require them to pay more for health insurance and pensions, effectively slicing away a substantial amount of worker income. More surprising are the governor’s hopes to severely castrate (unpleasant yet appropriate imagery) the bargaining rights of these union workers.

The governor has made the claim that such cutbacks are necessary in these tough economic times, and he and supporters have said that so-called excessive benefits and pay for public employees have contributed to the dire economic straits that many parts of the US find themselves in.

Now, it’s understandable that Walker would want to cut back on certain benefits and bonuses for state workers, and in fact, prominent union leaders have agreed to this cut in pay (which works out to around a 7% drop in income). But my real concern with Walker’s action isn’t about the financial side of things so much as the union rights aspect. While I can sympathize with a desire for cutbacks in spending in the public sector, I really fail to see what economic benefits the Republican bloc of Wisconsin hopes to find in the restriction of collective bargaining among unions.

Generally, I don’t have a fantastically high view of unions, to be perfectly honest. While I’m typically a very liberal thinker (and voter), I often find myself taking a more Republican view toward unions. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great to have increased protection and fairness toward workers, particularly those in the lower or middle working classes, to prevent abuse from higher-ups. In this sense, I love unions. In another sense though, unions have the potential to elevate certain professions higher than they should be, and guarantee protections and privileges to only a few.

In this sense, I agree with supporters of the governor’s action (or at least their sentiment). In a recent New York Times article, a number of Wisconsinites have expressed their frustrations over the seeming extra protections that such unions provide to state workers. Many workers for private companies, especially in the industrial sector, feel that people such as public school teachers, policemen, nurses, or firefighters shouldn’t get such excessive benefits and bargaining rights when those working in the private sector don’t have those same bonuses.

And so it goes. I definitely wouldn’t say that these protests will have similar results to those in Cairo, as some seem to be hoping for. But they do raise an interesting and important question of the modern roles and rights of unions, and whether public workers do have this inherent right to collective bargaining. Either way, I think it’s fair to say that this right isn’t what needs to be taken into consideration right now. Walker and other Republicans are trying to turn a budget cut into an outright attack on union rights and union workers, using the excuse of a federal budget as a justification to hack into union power. I fail to see how collective bargaining is going to have a negative impact on Scott Walker’s budget, and it’s time he abandoned the argument that taking this right away will help his state’s economy.

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Filed under Politics & Power, Revolutions & Revolts

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