Still waiting on that sweet job creation
Let's get right to it, shall we? Rumor has it that Gov. Scott Walker will soon announce legislation that would essentially eliminate (or at least mortally wound) all state employee unions. What this has to do with Walker's stated priority of "jobs, jobs, and jobs" I'm not sure, but it certainly fits with the current trend of demonizing public sector workers and unions at large. It's all the rage with the kids* these days.
Not that it's a new tactic. Many Republicans (and some Democrats) have long held a grudge against the right of regular workers to engage in collective bargaining. Walker himself has made it clear since his time as Milwaukee County Executive that he'd like to see unions go the way of the dodo. Unions threaten the ability of unscrupulous companies -- too often the politician's main donors, if not own businesses -- to do whatever they'd like: cut wages, ignore safety regulations, and generally walk all over the people doing their work for them.
Not all businesses are so callous, thank goodness, but it only takes one bad actor to justify a rule. America has experienced more than its fair share of those bad actors, though, and it's why unions have played such a crucially important role in the struggle for greater workplace equality and fairness.
It may be a cliché, bumper sticker slogan, but it's still true: Unions and their members were and are a significant factor in bringing this country the five day work week, child labor laws, health and safety regulations so you're far less likely to be poisoned or dismembered on the job, the minimum wage, and more.
But vested interests have been working to slowly chip away at union rights since the beginning. There are now so-called "right to work" laws in 22 states, and Walker would like to add Wisconsin (or, at least for now, its public employees) to the list. At first blush, it might seem perfectly reasonable to prohibit mandatory union membership and dues payment -- freedom of association, right? The problems, of course, are manifold: Not only do the non-union members then benefit directly from any deals struck by the union without contributing to the health and financial stability of the union, but the overall move tends to weaken unions, thereby weakening worker protections.
What's being whispered about in this particular case, however, is the idea of repealing the provisions of state law that allowed for negotiations between government and its employees in the first place. The move was made as a compromise -- workers gave up their right to go on strike in exchange for the right to engage in collective bargaining. Seems like a great idea to me, and, I think, demonstrates that the people who work these jobs -- teachers, prison guards, those who monitor sex offenders, etc. -- recognize how crucial their jobs are to the safety and well-being of society.
Why on earth then would we want to punish them for doing some of the most important work in the state by further eroding their right to organize for fair treatment? And why on earth would anyone want to go back to the days when work stoppages in schools, for garbage pick-up, and at prisons were the norm? What Walker apparently supports would be nothing less than all-out war with labor -- i.e. the people doing the hard, day-to-day work of making our state run.
Yes, there are always ways to make unions work better, to hold people more accountable. There are always going to be a few bad apples mucking things up for everyone, regardless of what side of the bigger issue they fall on.
It should certainly be noted that the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), a frequent target of anti-union rhetoric, recently agreed to major reforms in the ways Wisconsin's teachers are evaluated, performance-based pay, and even breaking up Milwaukee Public Schools. This is huge news and could help lead to much-needed changes and improvements in the way our children are taught.
It's also what so many of Walker and his ilk have been pushing for, though I have a sneaking suspicion that nothing short of dissolution of the union and full-on embracing of a private/charter school model will make them truly happy (it would also cripple, if not destroy, any real chance the most at-risk children among us might have had at getting a good education).
How else would you explain the Walker Administration's apparent complete lack of willingness (PDF) to talk to state employee unions in the lead-up to the governor's big budget announcement?
Wisconsin faces a shortfall of $137 million for the current budget that ends June 30 -- but, according to Sen. Mike Ellis, Walker plans to cover all of that and more through borrowing to pay off the state's current debt. Ellis also says Walker plans to significantly cut aid to public schools, but will "look at easing part of that pain by making it easier for school districts to hold down spending in areas such as employee benefits."
Isn't that just super considerate of him -- "I'm going to slash already tight budgets for your schools, kids, but don't worry! I'll make the people teaching and supporting you suffer just as much!"
None of this will matter if Walker just outright abolishes the right of unions to actually bargain with him over their benefits. Though that's just a rumor of a Republican wet dream at the moment, I certainly wouldn't put it past Walker to try. The cynical part of me almost wants him to, just for the enormous backlash he and his administration would inevitably suffer because of it. The better part of me would like to see other, less hurtful strategies for improved fiscal responsibility explored and actually tried.
The question then is can our politicians put aside politics long enough to do the right thing?
*Well, the Alex P. Keaton types, anyway.
Associate professor of pathobiological sciences Eric Sandgren has announced three forums on the UW-Madison campus that will highlight the ethics of animal research at the institution. This could be an important step toward better communication and understanding between the animal research community and those skeptical of, if not outright opposed to, the practice:
"We want these talks to be discussions with the community on the costs, benefits and ethics of animal research," said Sandgren, who directs the Research Animal Resource Center. "More transparency, more communication and better information help everyone involved in this emotional debate."
The forums are in response to interest in the ethics of animal research among some members of the Dane County Board. The goal is to increase public discussion and understanding of issues surrounding animal research.
Each presentation will be followed by an extensive question-and-answer session involving the audience. Speakers were selected by a planning group, which included a diverse range of opinions on the validity and benefits of animal research. All sessions are free and open to the public.
See the link above for a full schedule of events.
Walker's about to get the most Valentine's out of anyone in the state, if a UW student organized campaign is successful. The "We ? UW : Governor Walker, Don't Break My ?" event aims to collect thousands of Valentine's from the UW community -- professors, students, faculty, staff -- asking Walker not to include drastic cuts in funding for the UW system in his upcoming budget proposal. It's a cute idea and, more importantly, a way to get a crucial point across in a more approachable way. The cards will be delivered to the governor's office on Monday, Feb. 14 at 12:15 p.m.