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The Madison Protests: It's Not About the Money

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Madison, Wisconsin, The Heartland, America.

I am not what you would call a real "progressive" in the modern sense of the word. I actually have significant concerns about the role of public sector unions when they become too large -- they can begin to act like monopoly players in the labor market and to exert an unwholesome amount of political influence. While we're at it, the way outgoing Governor Doyle pushed through the last set of union contracts (and the light rail project) literally as he was leaving office was unseemly. Oh, and the claim that there would be no deficit in Wisconsin but for Walker's new tax cuts? That one is false. The bulk of those cuts are not scheduled to take effect immediately, anyway. According to the Wisconsin Fiscal Bureau analysis (which you can find here), only $12.9 million in loss of revenue is scheduled to occur before June 30, 2011; the rest of the $139 million does not take effect until the biennium ending in June 2013. (Of course, reducing revenue by $12.9 million right away when "we're broke" is a peculiar move, but that is another matter.)

That being said, I am absolutely appalled and disgusted by the apparent inability of the media -- even local papers like the Wisconsin State Journal -- to get the most basic facts of the issue right. IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY. It has NEVER been about the money: from the very beginning union leaders said they are willing to accept the contribution requirements. And it's worth pointing out that public sector employees have had four years of no raises (including one raise that was retroactively clawed back for some of us) and pay cuts in the form of unpaid furlough days. As a matter of fact, by promising to end furloughs, Governor Walker goes a good ways to mitigate the impact of the increased contribution requirements in the short term.

IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY. If I say it loudly enough, will anyone hear it? It's about preserving collective bargaining and a governor who negotiates before he makes radical decisions and huge, transformative bills getting a public hearing before they are voted on. It's about "democracy," and it's not really a coincidence that every petty tyrant you have ever heard of from Latin America to the Middle East started by crushing the trade unions.

IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY. Every speaker, every sign, every chant in the crowd is about collective bargaining. You might not think that "meet us at the bargaining table" would make an effective chant, but you would be surprised. Walker introduced his bill and right away said that he would not negotiate -- with anyone, about anything -- and that if the public sector workers tried to have a work action he would call in the National Guard. That was before any protests! This Governor went to Defcon 4 and started warming up his nukes before anyone had even indicated a hostile intent. How bad is it? Even the Chair of the Madison Chamber of Commerce is starting to sound a little queasy.

IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY. If it were, what would public unions exempted from the bill be doing in the street? Police and firefighters have been out in force to support the protesters -- these are public employees, but they are exempt from the provisions of Walker's Bill. They are also core Republican constituencies. Some of these Republican legislators may have to run for re-election against the opposition of local chambers of commerce, police forces, and firefighters. In other words, the GOP is losing the Reagan Democrats and betting, instead, on the Tea Party.

And it's not just public unions. I saw an awful lot of Machinists and Pipefitters and Electricians and Teamsters -- again, not exactly traditional Democratic constituencies. One of the guys in the Teamster jackets was a burly, grizzled man with close-cropped grey hair, neon blue eyes, and hands like shovels. His comment to me was, "If this was our protest, it wouldn't be so peaceful."

Governor Walker, are you really looking to go to war with the Teamsters? With what? On Saturday I asked four different state troopers (to whom all our thanks is due for their exemplary professionalism) what they thought, and to a man each one gave me the same tight little smile and said "We can't comment on that," and all the other troopers nodded soberly. Then I asked my follow up question: "Well, how are the protesters behaving?" And to a man, each one broke into a warm grin and said "They're great!" And all the others nodded enthusiastically. Governor Walker, as the saying goes, are you sure you hold the army?

The much-vaunted counter-protest on Saturday was tiny, weakly organized, and you had to be standing right next to the crowd to be able to hear it. And unsurprisingly, perhaps, most of the pro-Walker people still did not seem to understand that IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY. Lots of wonderful myths floating around -- "the average teacher in Milwaukee makes $100,000!" (the actual figure is $56,500, the rest is obtained by valuing benefits at more than 100% of salary. Try that with your own salary.) I won't even tell you the idiotic ideas people have about how much college professors make: if the Tea Party could arrange for me to earn as much as they think I do, I would join the Tea Party.

The signs were a wonderful mixture of poetry and silliness. "Give you tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free... and we'll take care of them! We're nurses." A sign that read "I love my Public Defender" and another being carried by a member of the Wisconsin States' Attorney Association. I liked the one that read,"I blame Favre" ....well, around here, who doesn't? "Never poke a badger." And everywhere, everywhere, "This is a peaceful protest." Inside, the rotunda was packed solid with people, many of whom have been there for days. "This is what democracy smells like," as a friend of mine put it.

How does this end? I truly don't know. Republican legislators insist that there is massive support for their position outside the Capitol, and thus far party discipline has been absolute. (I can't remember the last time I wanted to see some reliable polling data so badly.) If I had to bet, I would bet that the bill will be passed in its present form, and collective bargaining rights will be lost for a while.

But that's when the really interesting part begins. Does Walker have any political capital left at all among Republican legislators after needlessly and pointlessly subjecting them to this? And what will the next election cycle look like? We have a long history of political division in this state: we elected Joe McCarthy and Bob LaFollette. But we have no history of governors seizing power and publicly declaring themselves answerable to no one. And Walker is trying to raise the threat level: a few days ago he was saying the bill was necessary to prevent 6,000 layoffs. Now that number has climbed to "11,000." Governor Walker, did you really just threaten to fire 11,000 people unless your bill gets passed? Is that how you think politics works in Wisconsin?

IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY. It's about the politics, about the representation and about the duty that public officials have to treat their constituents who are taxpayers with a minimal degree of respect. People get angry when politicians think they are monarchs. What this bodes for GOP candidates going forward depends on how angry ordinary Wisconsinites are, including a lot of traditional Republican voters. How angry are the teachers and the nurses and the police officers and the firefighters? How angry are our Teamsters and our Machinists, our janitors and security guards, our food service workers, and -- oh, yes -- our incredibly underpaid graduate instructors and the bone-poor teachers at our community colleges?

The protests are going to be a lot quieter for a bit: weather is back to "normal" here in Wisconsin, which means driving sleet and frigid temperatures. But I don't think people have stopped paying attention. As I said at the outset, I'm not really a true-blue Progressive, but like a great number of other people I am angry, angrier now than I was a week ago. And IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY.