Wisconsin hangs tough

Hundreds of people camped inside of the Wisconsin State Capitol for the last two weeks in support of Wisconsin public workers under attack from their governor refused to leave the building after Gov Scott Walker set a 4:00 P.M. Sunday deadline for their removal. Gov Walker said that those inside who refused to leave would be arrested.

Those inside the building and millions of others across the country have been protesting Gov Walker’s proposed legislation that would effectively end collective bargaining for Wisconsin’s public sector workers. The ultimate purpose of the bill is to bust public sector unions and take away public workers’ on-the-job voice.

“People are realizing that if they want their voice heard, they’ve got to yell loud,” Maya Madden told Bloomberg News inside the Capitol. Madden, a 66-year-old small business owner, said that she was prepared to be arrested for refusing to leave.

“We are here and we will remain here until the middle class is protected,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO from inside the Capitol.

Those inside the building were joined by local clergy, who also vowed to be arrested if police tried to clear the building. As those inside prepared to be arrested, thousands of supporters outside chanted, “We are Wisconsin, the whole world is watching!”

At the same time, The AFL-CIO set up sound equipment and prepared to broadcast when arrests began Dr Martin Luther King’s final speech before he was assassinated to striking Memphis sanitation workers.

But about 8:00 P.M. Sunday night, Capitol police decided that no arrests would be made and that those remaining in the building would be allowed to stay through the night. The stay-in participants,  mainly students, have been holding a vigil inside the Capitol since February 15.

“They are allowed to stay tonight, but we are going to go back tonight and evaluate our procedures,” Charles Tubbs, head of Capitol Police, told reporters. More protests in Madison are scheduled to begin again on Monday morning.

For two weeks now, public workers, their supporters, and their unions have not only managed to keep their fight against Gov Walker’s union busting efforts alive, they’ve kept it growing.

On Saturday after 12 straight days of marches, protests, and demonstrations, Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, saw its biggest demonstration yet in support of public workers and public worker unions. About 100,000 people marched through lightly falling snow to demand that Gov Walker end his efforts to dismantle public worker unions.

Public sector workers were joined by thousands of autoworkers, construction workers, communication workers, and dozens more private sector union members in the march. Two van loads of workers from Metropolis, Illinois who belong to United Steelworkers Local 7-669 traveled through snow to show their support. Local 7-669 members have been locked out by their employer Honeywell since June. 

“After all the support we have seen from around the country, it would be a disservice not to join our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin and give some of that support back,” said Darrell Lillie, President, USW Local 7-669.  “Without collective bargaining rights, workers in both the public and private sector would be devastated and lose their voice in the workplace.” (Those wishing to support Honeywell workers can get more information at www.experiencematters.usw.org)

Support rallies were held across the country as well. In Austin about 1,000 people gathered on the grounds of the State Capitol.”It was quite wonderful,” said Anne Lewis, an instructor at the University of Texas and member of the Texas State Employees Union. “There were all kinds of union folks  — Education Austin, TSEU, Treasury
Workers, Firefighters, Sheet Metal Workers, AFSCME. We even signed up four new members.”

Last week, the South Central Federation of Labor, the Madison-area labor council composed of about 90 unions representing 45,000 workers in four counties voted to endorse a general strike if Gov Walker signs his union busting bill. The resolution endorsing a general strike says that the council’s Education Committee will “immediately begin educating affiliates and members on the organization and function of a general strike.”

Cost of Texas budget cuts starting to take shape

“The Texas Legislature is wrestling with a predicted $27 billion (deficit) . . .,” wrote Mike Gross, Texas State Employees Union, CWA Local 6186 vice-president in the Austin American Statesman.  “Its solution, to take a budget that already puts us at the bottom among the states in investment in our own people and cut $30 billion out of it, will cost Texas much more than it saves.”

Some of the costs that Gross is talking about began to take shape recently as local school boards and one of Texas’ major public safety agencies announced layoffs that reduce the quality of public education and diminish public safety.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice on Wednesday announced that it will lay off 550 workers in its parole and correctional institutions divisions. Most of those facing layoffs will be support and administrative workers, but 155 of those being laid off work in Project Rio, a program that helps ex-offenders find jobs and stay out of prison. The layoffs effectively shut down Project Rio.

“The layoffs will have a big impact on public safety in Texas,” Gross said. “Fewer support staff  in the parole division will mean parole officers will spend more time doing paper work and less time monitoring parolees. Ending Project Rio just means that we’ll be seeing more ex-offenders committing crimes and ending up back in prison.”

According to the US Justice Department, studies show that “ex-offenders with jobs commit fewer crimes than ex-offenders without jobs, and Project Rio has been effective in helping ex-offenders find and keep jobs and avoid returning to prison.

In addition to diminished public safety, the budget cuts will also mean reduced education opportunities especially for working class students. For example, the superintendent of the Austin Independent School District (AISD) recently proposed a budget that eliminates more than 1,000 education jobs because the district anticipates that state funding for the school district will be substantially reduced.

About half of the proposed cuts are teacher positions, and many of the others, such as teaching assistants, have a direct impact on teaching. The layoffs will mean that class sizes will be larger next year, and larger class sizes will impair the quality of education for AISD students. AISD is an urban district of more than 84,000 students, 63 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Larger classes sizes will be especially hard on students who need extra help such as those who lack English proficiency, 29 percent of AISD’s students, and special education students, whose programs in working-class areas of the city have been especially hard hit by the budget cuts. 

In a letter to its members, Austin Education, the union representing 4,000 Austin teachers and education workers, told its members that despite the bad news about layoffs, the proposed budget is not a done deal yet and urged members to “keep fighting.”

“It is of the utmost importance that we direct much of our energy and resources to the legislature,” the letter said.  “That is where the real problem resides. If the district was dealing only with their budget shortfall of about $15 million dollars, they could remedy it without cutting jobs. However, the state has proposed draconian cuts that increase the district deficit to between $90-$113 million dollars. This is unprecedented and we must make the legislature aware that it is unacceptable.”

Indiana right-to-work-for-less bill dead for now; other anti-worker bills still on the table

Demonstrations in Indianapolis, Indiana’s state capital, continued today after leaders of the state legislature announced yesterday that a proposed right-to-work-for-less bill was dead. The bill, HB 1468, would have weakened Indiana’s unions and their ability to bargain for better pay and benefits. But the legislature is still considering other anti-working class bills that include banning collective bargaining rights for state employees and restricting them for public school teachers.

On Wednesday, union members and supporters organized by the Indiana state AFL-CIO and Stand Up For Hoosiers, a community organization, filled the gallery of the House of Representative as the house prepared to debate HB 1468.  Workers chanted, “they want profits, we want jobs” and “kill the bill” forcing House Speaker Brian Bosna, a Republican, to clear the gallery and adjourn the house.

After adjourning, Bosna and his counterpart in the state senate announced that HB 1468 was dead for this session because on Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers had gone to Illinois so that there wouldn’t be a quorum for Wednesday’s vote. 

Events leading up to Wednesday’s announcement began early this year when Indiana Republicans decided to fast track HB 1468, which mirrored similar efforts to cram down right-to-work-for-less legislation in other states like Missouri and New Hampshire.

In response, unions began organizing to fight back. They held community meetings to explain how the proposed right-to-work-for-less law would hurt all working people in Indiana. One of those meetings was held in Terre Haute on Friday night where David Williams, President of the Wabash Valley Central Labor Council, told the audience, “The fact is that wages in right-to-work-(for-less) states are lower.”

Williams also pointed out that strong unions not only help union workers get higher wages, they boost wages for non-union workers whose employers pay more to keep their workers from organizing unions. Williams cited Toyota Motor Co as an example.

Williams also said that bills like HB 1468 do nothing to protect workers’ right to work, but they do weaken union power because they prohibit unions from collecting fees from non-union workers to pay for union services like contract negotiations and contract enforcement. Without these fees, non-union workers (also known as free riders) at union jobs would have the same rights and benefits as union members without having to pay their fair share of the cost.

Proponents also claim right-to-work-for-less laws create jobs, but five of the ten states with the highest unemployment rates in the US are right-to-work-for-less states. Those states are Nevada (14.5 percent, the highest in the US), Florida (12 percent), South Carolina (10.7 percent), Georgia (10.2 percent), and Mississippi (10.1 percent).

On Monday when a committee hearing on HB 1468 was scheduled to begin, the Indiana state AFL-CIO and Stand Up For Hoosiers called for union members and supporters to rally at the state Capitol. About 1,000 showed up. Many stayed for the afternoon hearing. 

But HB 1468 was voted out of committee by a vote of 8 to 5 and was sent to the full house where a vote was planned for Wednesday; however, on Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers left the state for Illinois. 

While Democratic lawmakers were on their way to Illinois, union members and supporters went back to the Capitol for more rallies. More turned out on Tuesday than on Monday. After it became clear that the Democrats wouldn’t be returning, Gov Mitch Daniels requested that legislative leaders withdraw HB 1468, which they did on Wednesday.

Union workers and community supporters are continuing their demonstrations in Indianapolis and will continue to do so for at least the rest of this week because HB 1468 isn’t the only anti-working class bill on Republicans’ agenda. In all, Stand Up For Hoosiers has identified 11 anti-worker bills being considered, including HB 1568, which bans collective bargaining for state employees and SB 575, which limits collective bargaining rights for public school teachers.

At this time, the Democratic lawmakers who left Indiana are in Illinois and are refusing to come back until Republicans agree to negotiate on these 11 other bills. And Indiana unions and Stand Up For Hoosiers continue to demand that their voices be heard in Indianapolis.

“I’ll give up my union card when you pry it from my cold dead hands.”

They chanted “This is our house! Let us in,” and “kill the bill” outside the state Capitol on Tuesday as a light winter drizzle fell. But they weren’t in Wisconsin. They were in Columbus, Ohio, the state’s capital where lawmakers inside the building were scheduled to hear testimony on SB 5, a bill that would ban collective bargaining for state employees and severely restrict it for local government workers and public school teachers.

About 15,000 Ohio public workers had come to Columbus from all over the state to voice their rage over SB 5, but when they tried to enter their Capitol, officers from the Department of Public Safety would allow only a fraction into the building, supposedly because of safety concerns.

As it turns out, the head of Department of Safety is a political appointee of Ohio Governor John Kasich, the driving force behind SB 5. If Gov Kasich had any hopes that keeping opponents of SB 5 out in the cold would dampen their spirits he was wrong.

Public workers and their supporters remained outside in the cold demanding that their voice be heard. A sign carried by one of the workers expressed their determination. It read, “I’ll give up my union card when you pry it from my cold dead hands.”

 “We’re standing together and speaking in a clear, unified voice that (SB 5) is wrong for Ohio and a tragic distraction from what we should be focusing on: creating jobs and preparing Ohio’s students to fill those jobs,” read a statement by the Ohio Education Association, whose members were at the Capitol.

Gov Kasich says that SB 5 is needed to close Ohio’s $8 billion budget deficit. But collective bargaining didn’t cause the deficit; in fact, contracts negotiated by public worker unions have saved the state $250 million. What SB 5 is really about is busting unions and lowering living standards for the working class.

“This is bigger than unions,” said John Lyall, president of Ohio AFSCME Council 8. “This is about all working people. (SB 5) is not about creating jobs with benefits that allow a hard worker to provide for his or her family.”

Unions fighting SB 5 have been taking this message to the larger working class community.  The Communication Workers of America, which represents some public and higher education workers in Ohio, has organized a community-wide coalition called Stand Up for Ohio: Good Jobs and Strong Communities, “To help each other fight for issues critical to workers, families and strong, safe communities,” said Seth Rosen, CWA District 4 vice-president. “The politicians have a strategy of divide and conquer. “Our strategy is unite and win.”

SEIU has been holding town hall meetings like the one that took place in Youngstown Monday night when hundreds of union members and community supporters packed a meeting in Youngstown to hear leaders and rank-and-file union members denounce SB 5 as a union busting, job-killing bill.

At press conference with local clergy in Cincinnati, Robert Richardson, an SEIU member, said that SB 5 is an attack on the middle-class that takes away basic civil and human rights.

Private sector unions are worried about the impact that SB 5 will have on local economies in a state that is still suffering from the aftermath of the Great Recession. At a February 17 hearing on SB 5, Don Watkins, a meatcutter from Coldwater, Ohio and member of  United Food and Commercial Workers testified about how SB 5 would hurt his community.  “If our firemen or other public employees like teachers make less money or lose their jobs (because of SB 5), it is less likely that their dollars will stay in our communities and create jobs in Coldwater (Ohio),” Watkins said.

Watkins also told lawmakers that he knew firsthand the difference between working in a union and non-union shop.  “Before working in Coldwater, I worked in a non-union store, and I was not able to provide my family with the quality of life they have now,” said Watkins, a 46-year old widower.

Another UFCW member, Bonnie France also testified at the hearing saying, “This state is hurting for jobs, and I don’t understand why the Honorable Senator (Shannon) Jones, (SB 5’s sponsor) would introduce this bill that will kill jobs.”

When it became apparent on Tuesday that workers were determined to be heard, the Department of Public Safety finally relented and opened the Capitol doors as the hearing on SB 5 got underway. Thousands rushed inside.  The next public hearing on SB 5 will take place on Thursday, February 24.

The attack on public workers, and for that matter all workers, isn’t just taking place in Ohio and Wisconsin, it’s going on all over the country. You can find out more about the attacks and action being planned to resist them here and here.

Opposition to Wisconsin union busting bill gathers momentum

More than 500 Texas union members and their supporters chanted “What’s disgusting? Union busting,” in front of the state Capitol gates Monday night at the” Texas Unions in Solidarity with Wisconsin” rally in Austin. Speakers denounced Wisconsin Gov Scott Walker’s so-called “budget repair” bill for being a thinly veiled disguise to bust public worker unions.

Linda Bridges, President of the Texas Federation of Teachers, said that Gov Scott’s contention that public worker collective bargaining rights is the cause of Wisconsin’s budget deficit is ridiculous. “Texas has a $26 billion state budget deficit,” she said. “And we have that deficit despite the fact that state law prohibits collective bargaining for our  teachers and most other public workers.”

Becky Moeller, President of the Texas AFL-CIO, which organized the rally, said that the Wisconsin governor’s attack on public worker collective bargaining rights was part of a concerted effort meant to lower living standards for middle-class people throughout the US. She also said that the budget-cutting plan being considered by the Texas Legislature is part of that concerted effort and that if the budget cuts go through, 100,000 Texas public school teachers and education workers and another 10,000 state workers will lose their jobs.

“The loss of so many jobs will be devastating not just to those who lose their jobs, but to communities throughout the state,” Moeller said. She urged those at the rally to support Texas public workers and teachers at their lobby days this spring:  Texas State Employees Union’s “Protect State Services, Support Public Workers” Lobby Day will be April 6, teachers will hold two lobby days one on March 7, the other on March 14, and AFSCME’s Lobby Day will be March 24.

The Texas rally to support Wisconsin public workers was one of a number taking place throughout the US. On Monday, solidarity rallies were held in Chicago; Helena, Montana; Raleigh, North Carolina; Carson City, Nevada; Las Vegas; Salem, Oregon; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Olympia, Washington; and Charleston, West Virginia.

In Olympia, a rally planned to protest state budget cuts expanded into a show of support for Wisconsin public workers and others worldwide. “We’re here today to join in solidarity for all the young people and trade unionists around the world who are struggling for democracy, whether that’s in Egypt, whether in Yemen, or Tunisia, or Bahrain, or Madison, Wisconsin,” said Jeff Johnson, Washington State Labor Council president.

Speaking from a place near Tahir Square, the center of the Egyptian revolution in Cairo, Kamal Abbas, General Coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services, told Wisconsin workers, “From this place, I want you to know we stand with you as you stood with us. . . . Stand up, don’t waver. Don’t give up your rights. Victory always belongs to those who stand firm and demand their rights.”

More support rallies will be held throughout this week. Jobs with Justice has a list of where and when these rallies will be taking place.

Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin an automated telephone poll conducted by We Ask America found that 52 percent of Wisconsin residents polled disapproved of Gov Walker’s plan to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights while 43 percent approved.

Charles Woodson, a key player on the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl Champion football team, said that hard-working people including teachers and nurses are “under an unprecedented attack” and that as a member of the National Football Players Association, he is proud to stand with them.

On Tuesday in Madison rallies and protests against Gov Walker’s union busting bill continued for the eighth straight day. If you want to know what it’s like at ground zero, here’s a great video of events taking place through last weekend.

No mandate for union busting governor

Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker likes to say that he has a mandate to take away collective bargaining rights from  public workers, but if Wisconsin residents are anything like their counterparts in the rest of the US, that assertion is wrong. A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and Press shows that more people in the US side with public worker unions than state and local governments when there is a dispute between unions and government. 

The poll found that  44 percent of the respondents sided with unions when they heard about a dispute between unions and state and local government while 38 percent said they sided with government. The poll is based on the results of a survey conducted between February 2 and February 7.

The poll also found that 48 percent of the respondents had a favorable view of public sector unions while 40 percent had an unfavorable view.

Another poll that was taken about a week earlier by Pew found that there was no mandate for cutting public workers pensions to balance state budgets. When asked whether states should balance their budgets by cutting state workers’ pensions, 47 percent said no and 47 percent said yes.

This last finding is remarkable considering the fact that for the last six months media outlets as diverse as the New York Times and Fox News have run misleading stories based on irrelevant factoids and outright lies saying that state worker pensions are bankrupting state governments. And politicians as diverse as Republican Governor Walker and New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo used the same message in their campaigns.

The first Pew survey found that overall favorability ratings for both public and private sector unions are at their lowest level in a quarter of a century. Forty-five percent said they had a favorable view of unions, down from about 60 percent in 2000.

But business doesn’t fare much better. Only 47 percent said that they had a favorable view of business, down from a peak of nearly 80 percent in 2000.

The decline in support for both unions and business probably is the result of the general decline in the economy that occurred during the first decade of this century. People are seeing their standards of living decline, which creates a general discontent with the institutions that are part of the economy.

Meanwhile in Madison, 70,000 people turned out Saturday for another march and rally against the governor’s “bust the unions” bill. There also were demonstrations in other parts of the state. Demonstrations in Madison are scheduled to take place through Tuesday. Democratic lawmakers, who left the state so that no action could be taken on the bill, said that they would stay where they are until Gov Walker agrees to negotiations on the bill.

Workers in Egypt and Wisconsin fight for justice

Workers in Egypt defied their military rulers by remaining on strike to protest low wages, poor management, and their lack of a voice in job related matters. Public workers in Wisconsin defied their governor by continuing to pour into the state capital today to protest proposed legislation that will reduce their benefits, lower their pay, and deprive them of a voice in job related matters. Egyptian rulers have insinuated that they may use military force to break the strikes; Wisconsin’s governor has threatened to call out the National Guard to force public workers back to work.

Striking Egyptian workers helped overthrow the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, and since his overthrow, tens of thousands of workers in the banking, transport, oil, tourism, textile, and state-owned media industries have remained on strike. Workers at several government agencies also remain on strike.

In Al-Mahlla al-Kubra about 60 miles north of Cairo, workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving textile factory, who have been at the center of countrywide worker unrest, resumed their strike  on Wednesday after a two-day interlude.

The Misr textile workers are demanding an increase in the country’s minimum wage from 400 Egyptian pounds a month ($68) to 1200 pounds a month ($204), the court-ordered minimum established last year but never implemented.

The Misr workers are also demanding that the mill’s boss, who has ties to former president Mubarak, be fired and that their independent union be recognized instead of the existing union, which has proven to be corrupt and unwilling to support workers’ fights for justice.

Back in 2006 workers at dozens of textile factories in Al-Mahalla including Misr, went on strike and occupied factories for pay increases and health benefits. Management agreed to their demands, but never followed through, which led to another strike in 2007. In 2008 when gains won by workers had still not been implemented, young workers and students in Al-Mahalla organized a general strike that shut down the city. Out of the general strike grew the April 6 Youth Movement, which was a key group that mobilized people to overthrow President Mubarak.

In Madison, Wisconsin, 20,000 public workers and their supporters on Thursday returned to Madison for the fourth day of protests against Gov Scott Walker’s proposal to cut public worker pay and take away their collective bargaining rights. The workers and their supporters have been mobilized by  the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Wisconsin American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and other public sector unions. 

Gov Walker’s proposal was supposed to come up for a vote in legislature on Thursday, Democratic senators were not present so no there was no quorum and no vote could be taken. Police were sent looking for them.

Today’s rally followed yesterday’s which drew more than 30,000 opponents to the bill. After the rally ended protestors marched to the Capitol chanting “Kill the Bill.”

The bill proposed by Gov Walker increases the amount of money public employees contribute to their health care and pension plans.  The increased employee contributions will result in an 8 percent cut in take home pay for the average public worker in Wisconsin.

Gov Scott says that these cuts are needed to bring public workers’ benefits in line with workers in the private sector, but according to research done by Jeffery E. Keefe of the Economic Policy Institute, when total compensation packages for public and private sector workers with comparable skills and training are compared, Wisconsin public workers make 4.8 percent less than their private sector counterparts.

The fact is that private companies have been using the recession as an excuse to reduce benefits for their employees, and Gov Scott wants to do the same.

The bill also substantially limits the right of Wisconsin’s public workers to bargain collectively and takes away on-the-job rights like a fair grievance procedure. This bill is clearly aimed at busting public sector unions.

Wisconsin public workers are receiving support from private sector unions. The United Steelworkers has mobilized members to participate in the rallies and some Green Bay Packer football players, who are members of the National Football League Players Association, wrote a letter to Gov Walker scolding him for his union-busting,  anti-worker proposal.

You can read more about the impact that Gov Scott’s anti-worker bill will have on individual lives here.  And you can read more about the struggle at AFSCME’s and Wisconsin AFT’s website.