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Attacking Wisconsin’s Middle Class

March 3rd, 2011 | Linda Meric

Image: Linda MericMedia coverage of Madison’s thousands of demonstrators has focused on Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights.  Members of 9to5, Association of Working Women have stood with those calling for fairness for working families.  But it’s clear that governor and conservative state legislators’ agenda is bigger than just union busting.  To benefit their corporate masters, they are determined to deny the American Dream to the vast majority of Wisconsinites.

Public workers don’t make big bucks but they are the backbone of the middle class.  They are teachers who tutor struggling students so they’re prepared for college, vocational school or a trade.  They are police and firefighters who protect us when the unthinkable happens.  They are nurses who vaccinate children so we no longer have polio and diphtheria epidemics.  They are $9.00/hour home health care workers helping individuals live in their homes with dignity.  They keep the economy humming by paying their mortgages, buying groceries and purchasing clothes items that keep our Main Street small businesses afloat.

Throughout the years, public employees and their unions have accepted lower paychecks to defer money to their pensions and health care.  Despite this, they’ve agreed to wage and benefit concessions to help do their share in balancing the state budget.

In sharp contrast to their “jobs, jobs, jobs” campaign promises, Wisconsin Republicans are pushing tax breaks to corporations and the rich that will decimate the state’s budget revenue.  To pay for their millionaire friends’ favors, they propose to cut already stretched-thin funding for education, police, firefighters and human services, all provided by public employees.

In a now-public recorded call to Gov. Walker in which a journalist pretended to be anti-union billionaire David Koch, the men discuss plans to threaten public workers with layoffs, attempts to divide public and private sector unions, and their hope that their anti-union efforts could spread nationwide.

Let’s be clear: This showdown is NOT about balancing the state budget.  It’s about union busting, pure and simple.  The upshot of these efforts is to take away power and family-supporting jobs from working families.

Meanwhile, Gov. Walker and allied legislators have launched other attacks on all working families in both the public and private sectors.  Their budget gives themselves the power to slash health care – a key middle class support – for the 1.1 million Wisconsinites relying on Medicaid.

They’ve proposed rolling back Wisconsin’s Family and Medical Leave Act.  Employees working less than 25 hours per week would no longer be eligible for family leave, and employers could deny the use of accrued sick time to cover lost pay.  Many would be forced to take unpaid leave for emergencies, putting their homes, families and even their jobs at risk.

In an end run around Milwaukee’s paid sick days policy, passed by 70% of that city’s voters in 2008, these legislators have introduced a bill to prevent municipalities from enacting paid sick days laws.

Proponents of these measures suggest they’re needed to boost industry and jobs but Wisconsin’s biggest companies are thriving, even through the recession.  Mercury Marine reported profits of $1.1 billion between 2000-2007 while paying nothing in state corporate income taxes.  Harley-Davidson’s profits have increased – profits The New York Times documented as “…mostly going to shareholders instead of the broader economy.”  Nevertheless, hearing the mantra of “you’re lucky to have jobs,” Harley workers were forced to take pay cuts.

The Governor and allied legislators are pulling the rug out from under middle class families because they want to bust unions and strip hard-won protections like health care, family leave and paid sick days from workers to enrich their corporate campaign contributors.

It’s time for people across Wisconsin and the nation to stand up for working families against policies that would degrade their pay and security.

About the Author: Linda Meric is the Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, a national membership-based organization of low-income women working to improve policies on issues that directly affect them.

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