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Labor Movements Under Attack in Madison, Wisconsin

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Madison, Wisconsin -- arguably the center of labor movements and unions -- is under attack. In one of the largest and troubling setbacks to workers' rights, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has proposed regressive legislation that not only dismantles the ability of civil employees to oppose unjust practices, but it essentially demonizes each individual's self-worth. As thousands continue to gather in Wisconsin to protest laws that would require them to pay more for their pensions and health insurance, similar action is taking place in New Mexico and around the country as unions face continued assault. The nation, in effect, is at a pivotal moment not seen since the days of the great civil rights movement.

On the heels of a catastrophic financial crisis, states are forced to deal with massive budget deficits and an as-yet unclear future. But in the difficult task of charting a way through the tough terrain of uncertainty, those elected to serve the people cannot continue to lay the burden on the shoulders of the most vulnerable. Gov. Walker has called for state employees to contribute 5.8% of their pay to their pensions, while simultaneously requiring them to pay at least 12.6% of their health care premiums. For a hard-working state employee, such drastic measures would translate to extremely diminished take-home money, and renewed difficulty. At a time when workers are already bearing the brunt of hardship for an economic recession they did not create, Gov. Walker's proposal is outrageous, unjust and misleading.

Let me be clear. If you alter the pension apparatus, it will not add one dime to the state deficit. It is a con game, pure and simple. And unfortunately Gov. Walker and others proposing similar legislation are wasting time attacking working folks instead of seeking honest, sustainable solutions to their budget shortfalls. Rather than targeting teachers, state and municipal employees, these elected officials need to put forth as much effort towards creating jobs and providing opportunities for everyone to receive fair pay, affordable housing and a shot at the proverbial American dream.

Last week, I was in New Mexico with Lee Saunders, International Secretary-Treasurer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), as we addressed a similar attack on workers in that state. As Lee Saunders and I work to protect the rights of New Mexico's civil employees, we must ensure that other states and municipalities do not begin to undermine the people who clean our streets, collect our garbage, teach our children, deliver our mail and tremendously help us all on a daily basis.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now-signature 'I Have a Dream Speech' in 1963 at a demonstration titled the 'March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom'. When he was viciously murdered a few years later in 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee standing alongside sanitation and public workers as they fought for livable wages and fair benefits. Literally giving his life for the cause of workers' rights and the right of dignity for every man, woman and child, Dr. King would be appalled to see the attacks today on unions and the labor force. If our greatest civil liberties advocate were with us now, he would undoubtedly be leading the way in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Essentially paying homage to the legacy of Dr. King, workers in Wisconsin have peacefully assembled and voiced their disapproval at Gov. Walker's proposals. In Indianapolis, teachers recently protested a bill that would limit contract negotiations for their unions, while in Ohio, demonstrations occurred outside the Statehouse against legislation that would severely hinder the bargaining ability of unions and state employees. As more erroneous attacks against state and municipal workers occur around the nation, we should encourage - not criticize - these nonviolent protests and opposition. It is, after all, precisely what Dr. King would be doing as well.

On the eve before he was brutally slain, he stated: 'Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants...'

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