State of the Unions: Wisconsin Budget Battle an Attack on Democratic Party

The boisterous protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to end collective bargaining rights for public employees are about much more than the state’s budget crisis; it is an assault on the base of the Democratic Party. The capitol steps in Madison have become a last stand for the American Labor Movement and a battle Democrats need to win.

In recent decades, union support has eroded along with the middle class in this country. Privatization reforms, an increase in free trade agreements and – unfortunately – extravagant union demands have undermined the labor movement. Union membership decreased from more than 40 percent after World War II to 11.9 percent in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Once perceived to be bastions of the working middle class, unions are now the scapegoat in Republican attacks on workers’ rights and, indirectly, the Democratic Party.

Many of Walker’s demands to reduce benefits for government employees in Wisconsin are legitimate. The state faces a deficit that could balloon to $3.7 billion. Asking public employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries for pension costs and cover 12.6 percent of their health care premiums is an acceptable compromise, which union members said they would agree to.

However, Walker is asking for more. He knows if he can cut unions off at their kneecaps, the Democratic Party will struggle to mount campaigns in many Midwestern states. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spent $87 million during the 2010 election cycle on mostly Democratic candidates, according to Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post.

While petty, the decision by 14 Wisconsin state senators to flee, denying Republicans a quorum to vote on the measure, has allowed the issue to manifest into a national dialogue. Protests continue to spread across the Midwest in opposition to the bill.

After supporting the protesters last week, President Barack Obama has recoiled, offering little substance to the debate, much like he has with the upheaval in Libya. While running for president in 2007, Obama said, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain, when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you, as president of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that someone’s standing in their corner.”

Fast forward to this week, Obama briefly touched on the subject Monday in a speech to the National Governors Association.

“I don’t think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon,” the president said. “If all the pain is borne by only one group – whether it’s workers, or seniors, or the poor – while the wealthiest among us get to keep or get more tax breaks, we’re not doing the right thing. I think that’s something that Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on.”

These are clearly the words of a man running for re-election.

The turmoil in Wisconsin is not another issue Obama should give in on. He already has public support on his side. In a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, 61 percent of respondents said they endorsed public employee bargaining rights – a clear rebuke of Walker’s budget bill. For the first time since the midterm elections, Obama should take a decisive stand. The Midwest was won by organized labor and the next election will be won in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

Without unions and collective bargaining, American workers would not have a minimum-wage, the 40-hour work week or health care benefits. At a time of such economic uncertainty, the need for a strong labor movement must endure. Through decent wages and benefits, the American working class can rise up once again.

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