By Ellen Whelan-Wuest, staff editor While the Middle Eastern protests and revolutions dominated the front pages, a democratic movement erupted in the heart of our own country. While recent reports indicate that counter protesters have joined the fray, the majority of the 68,000 people gathered in and around the state capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin are fighting for the long-standing right of public service employees to collectively bargain for their wages and benefits.
Governor Walker and his supporters have denounced the unions organizing the so-called “Cheddar Revolution,” as standing in the way of responsible budget cuts intended to address Wisconsin’s budget deficit. According to state and national Republican leaders, Governor Walker’s budget bill is an “austerity measure” and not a move solely intended to weaken unions, as President Obama and others have speculated.
However, there are two important and largely unexamined aspects to the events in Wisconsin that undermine such claims. First among these is that, before Governor Walker assumed office in January, Wisconsin was not running a deficit. In fact, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Wisconsin was projected to end the 2011 fiscal year at a $121.4 million surplus. However, in January Governor Walker passed his own $140 million spending bill, effectively wiping out Wisconsin’s tenuous fiscal stability. Some have argued that Governor Walker’s true motivation in passing the bill was to create a “crisis” that would allow him the moral high ground to attack unions and dramatically reduce spending, a claim that only Walker himself can answer. But whatever the reasons, the public has largely accepted that the Wisconsin state budget is as much in the red as in other states.
The second issue undermining “austerity” claims is the notable exemption of the police and firefighter unions from the bill. Under Walker’s proposal, nearly every state public service employee (including teachers and nurses) would lose the right to collectively bargain for benefits and safe work conditions, while also contributing a larger portion of their wages towards their health care and pension plans. Walker maintains this is necessary to draw down the deficit. Yet the police and firefighters, with two of the highest and most expensive benefits plans, were left out of the bill. Walker defends this exemption as necessary to preserve public safety, but it seems telling that that these were also two of the only unions that supported Walker in his bid for Governor. Either way, media coverage has largely treated these exemptions as mere back-story rather than a crucial component of what is happening in Madison.
Like the Egyptian demonstrations and those erupting in Bahrain and Libya, the Cheddar Revolution may not be fully understood until weeks, months, or years have passed and the dust has settled around Madison. But a lasting image that has also received little national attention, but will likely stay with those present is that of the International Association of Firefighters bagpipers leading their own union members through the capitol building only a few nights ago. Though their rights and benefits are safe, the IAF declared their solidarity with fellow public service employees, all to the tune of “America, the Beautiful.”
Nearly 70,000 people protested and counter-protested in Wisconsin last weekend. Passionate Americans held signs, chanted slogans and loudly disagreed with each other and their elected representatives from inside the capitol building, and no one was injured or arrested. Regardless of which side you support, I think we can all be as proud and inspired by the democratic spirit present in Wisconsin as the protests taking place in burgeoning democracies around the world.