Wisconsin labor unrest spills across Lake Michigan

The AFL-CIO is planning a protest Tuesday in Lansing, Michigan. This follows ongoing labor unrest in Wisconsin and Ohio over plans to reform public sector collective bargaining rules.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP
A supporter of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) walks among hundreds of protesters inside the state Capitol Monday in Madison, Wis. Opponents to Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers are taking part in their seventh day of protesting.

Michigan union leaders and social justice activists will join with colleagues in Wisconsin and Ohio on Tuesday as the AFL-CIO plans street protests in Lansing against Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's attempt to balance the state budget on the backs of public employees.

In scenes that US Rep. Paul Ryan (R) has likened to the massive recent protests and clashes in Cairo, Wisconsin public sector employees and union activists staged a seventh day of protests in Madison Monday as Gov. Scott Walker (R) refused to budge on his plan to gut collective bargaining, the behind-closed-doors process by which civil service workers, including teachers, secure pay, health, and pension benefits.

Fighting similar proposals, Ohio union activists protested in Columbus last week, as well, and now Michigan union protesters are planning a morning protest in Lansing. In Tennessee, a Republican-backed plan to end collective bargaining for the state's 52,000 teachers has drawn sharp rebukes from the education establishment. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has also proposed curbing collective bargaining rules in the Hoosier State.

The protests have highlighted a sharp ideological battleground between the progressive, union-backed ideals of President Obama and small-government conservatives who rejiggered the balance of power in an arc of upper Midwestern states in the 2010 mid-term elections.

These protests "probably have to roll out [through the region]," says labor expert Robert Bruno at the University of Illinois, in Champaign. "If you're engaged in progressive politics, you're part of the labor movement, and you're looking at a real threat to your ability to function and to your very existence, it does call out strong resistance."

As the Wisconsin stalemate continued with 14 Democratic senators across the state line in Illinois in order to thwart a quorum, and thus a vote, the national debate centered on whether Republicans had budgetary cause to, as Obama said, "assault the unions," or whether the gambits are a political ploy to undermine Midwestern progressive ideals in order to reshape states around small-government and right-to-work arrangements more common in the US South.

"I absolutely believe that is politically motivated, and they are using this budget crisis to run a very different agenda, and that is to attack worker rights and silence public employees," Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, told the Columbus Dispatch newspaper.

Union leaders say that would eliminate a core working class arrangement that reins in the power of corporate interests. Republicans say it's time for public service employees, who critics say secured gold-plated benefits in the 1990 boom years, to give up some of their power over state budgets in order to get costs in line with revenues.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the first newly-elected Republican governor to attack union influence on public finances, last week called union leaders "greedy ... selfish and self-interested."

Under the Wisconsin plan, workers would retain the right to negotiate their pay under collective bargaining rules, but reduced health and pension benefits would be imposed by the state legislature.

Wisconsin has racked up $315 million in unpaid bills. Michigan has a $1.8 billion budget deficit this year. Ohio faces a nearly $8 billion hole in its two-year budget.

Those fiscal challenges, added to anti-union sentiment among small-government conservatives, mean that public sector employees and their union representatives are "coming up against a deep-seated belief that [government] is all waste, fraud, abuse, and earmarks, and that you can actually make cuts where deficits will melt away and nobody will" really notice, says Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute.

The Michigan AFL-CIO, which is organizing Tuesday's planned protest, says it opposes over 30 bills in the state legislature, including a proposed law that would give the state power to terminate union contracts in bankrupt cities and towns.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said last week that he's "not picking fights" with unions, adding that mass street protests like those in Wisconsin are "not our path."

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