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As Wisconsin Goes, So Goes the Nation

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By John August, Executive Director, Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions

I am a proud Wisconsinite—not just because of the recent victory of the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl 45, but also because of the state’s great progressive traditions. Those traditions include a strong labor movement and the birth of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the major public sector union, in 1936. 

Yet all of those great, progressive traditions are fragile.

In many states today, including Wisconsin, public sector employees’ jobs, wages and benefits are on the line. The very right to have effective collective bargaining for public employees is at great risk all across the country.

Wisconsin’s new governor, Scott Walker, proposes eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public employees. He has said he does not have time to negotiate over the fiscal crisis in the state and instead wants the legislature to act quickly, so cuts can be made in the cost of public employee payroll and benefits with little-to-no bargaining. These events are pretty astounding given the history of the state.

Wisconsin is home to some of the first progressive social laws and organizations in U.S. history:

-- First unemployment compensation law
-- First workers compensation law
-- Founding of AFSCME

The current events in Wisconsin and in many other states could reduce the percentage of U.S. workers who belong to unions to even less than today’s 12 percent. As the collective bargaining strength of unions is reduced, there is a downward impact on all workers—so everyone who depends on a paycheck could be affected. If these attacks can happen in Wisconsin, they can happen anywhere!

These events remind us just how at risk our ability to carry out our mission at Kaiser Permanente could be. The partnership helps us preserve the great missions of our unions. Yet, the national economic, political, competitive and public policy trends over the last 30 years have put tremendous pressure on the ability of our organizations to succeed. The social safety net has been systematically stripped away while real wages have remained stagnant. These forces external to our day-to-day realities can overwhelm our capabilities, even our ability to survive.

Today the vast majority of people in our nation are suffering as a result of the greatest economic collapse since 1929. This collapse is systemic. Real unemployment is close to 20 percent, and even though official statements say we are in a “recovery,” good jobs and a return to normal fiscal capability at the state and federal level is a long way off!

Stand by public employees

In the case of the ongoing attacks on public sector workers and their unions, there is no evidence that attempting to solve the fiscal crisis of the states on the backs of hard-working public employees in all walks of life will be successful. There is no evidence that public sector employees caused the fiscal crisis. Indeed, economic trends and choices about how our society aligns and spends its vast wealth have created the crisis. Like similar approaches in the private sector, there is no evidence that destroying unions or taking away good jobs has produced better outcomes for society. Quite the contrary.

Our sisters and brothers in the public sector need our support. The attack they face is a reminder that the climate all around is threatening. Let’s not be fooled into thinking their benefits are a major problem—or taking them away is the solution for cash-strapped governments.


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