Live: Wisconsin showdown

I’ll be completely honest with you: For someone who lives 8 miles from the Wisconsin border, I know very little about that state’s government. But I do know that what’s happening there this week is a dramatic showdown between political forces that had to come sometime, and isn’t likely to be limited to Wisconsin.

At 11, the Wisconsin Senate will consider a bill, supported by Gov. Scott Walker, that imposes new working agreements and removes some benefits for some public employee unions. “We’re broke,” Gov. Walker says.

But the unions have been flexing their own muscle with a third day of “occupation” of the Wisconsin Capitol.

Coverage of the Senate session is to be provided by Wisconsin Eye. I’ll try to live blog, but it will depend on access to video or audio. No guarantees. Wisconsin isn’t Minnesota when it comes to public information on demand.

Here’s a copy of the bill. It’s 144 pages long.

10:45 a.m. – Online surveys are notoriously non-scientific, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online poll shows sentiment in favor of passing the legislation.

10:54 a.m. – Columnist Patrick McIlheran of the Journal Sentinel:

Yeah? Recall how we got here. How is it that only in desperation will unions accept a deal that still leaves them better off than everyone else? How did we achieve not just next year’s $3.3 billion deficit but the decade of structural deficits before? Easy: It’s because labor costs for years have been outstripping taxpayers’ capacity. That in turn was caused by officials, elected in a union-dominated political environment, buying labor peace via benefits, where it’s harder for voters to see the costs adding up.

vs. columnist Eugene Kane:

Walker apparently thinks the state is too broke to keep negotiating with unions the same way it has done before, although it’s not clear why he decided to take that stance at this particular juncture. He might be counting on growing anti-union sentiment that has caused some to question the effectiveness of organized labor, particularly public unions with long-standing agreements – some say “sweetheart deals” – with government.

11:12 a.m. – Still waiting for the lawmakers to convene. Here’s an AP report on the scene in Madison.

11:25 a.m. – Senators are being called to the floor. This link might be thick reading for we mere mortals, but it’s a background on Wisconsin’s public retirement system.

11:30 a.m. – There were rumors from the unions that Democrats would walk out today, preventing a vote. It sounds like the Democrats didn’t show up. There are 17 senators present, which is a quorum, however.

11:33 a.m. – Debate has started, disruptions break out in the gallery. Republicans are trying to press ahead but the chants are getting louder.

11:35 a.m. – The Republicans have given up and adjourned (or “standing informal”). They are looking to round up Democrats.

11:42 a.m. – Reading quite a few “tweets” with pleas to Al Jazeera to cover the events in Wisconsin, ” because the American media is ignoring it.” You have to take some responsibility for finding “the American media.” It’s not ignoring it by a long shot. And if you mean CNN or Fox, then one should identify them as such. There’s more to “the media” than a couple of big news organizations.

11:45 a.m. – Sen. Michael Ellis, R-Neenah, says the bill cannot be passed without 20 senators present. Acknowledges they don’t have. “I have no idea how long that will take; it will take an hour, 5 hours, 20 hours. ” He tells the people in the audience who were disrupting proceedings earlier, “You’re all good Americans. Thank you for your courtesy. God bless you.”

11:50 a.m. – Feel free to talk among yourselves in the comments section. Some good comments there already to kick around.

12:19 p.m.It appears the Democrats are coming in. They’re wearing red or orange T-shirts, which I presume are union-messaged shirts. Apologies, those are members of the Assembly.

12:34 p.m.Wisconsin State Journal says Democrat senators are leaving the city.

12:57 p.m. – I’m going to go live blog the “Should the CPB be funded” debate on MPR. Doesn’t appear to be anything new on the Wisconsin story. If something develops, I’ll pick it up later. Keep talking — nicely — in comments.

2:08 p.m. – This opinion piece in the Capitol Times claims Gov. Walker ginned up the Wisconsin financial crisis, and provides a link to the January fiscal note which it says proved it.

2:48 p.m. – Somewhat related: Minnesota Rep. Mark Buesgens filed legislation today ending public pensions for state workers.

  • Chris

    This is a strategic default on a debt, plain and simple. Imagine the outcry if the governor came out and said: “We’re broke. We’re going to pay $.80 on the dollar for all contracts with the state, which were sweetheart deals that we can no longer afford.” Union busting is no different, but because workers are easily demonized by virtue of the fact that they dare to band together to bargain with their employer, it can be viewed as morally justified.

  • MR

    I can understand how the benefit package and pension cost increases would save the state money. How does busting the union save the state money? Clearly busting unions can’t save that much money or he would have added the firefighter, police, and trooper unions.

    Finally, if public employees are benefiting unfairly by being paid significantly more than their private sector counterparts, why hasn’t someone introduced an amendment to equalize compensation differences, based on job classification, taking into account education/experience? Maybe because once you compare job classification to job classification, and take into account those things public workers are (for the most part) undercompensated?

  • Heather

    Hey, Bob? Thanks for noticing. I appreciate being able to get this coverage here. Chris and MR, I think your comments are dead on.

    I tried calling my Senator’s office this morning (Sheila Harsdorf). Her voice mail box was full, and when I tried the switchboard line, it was busy.

  • freealonzo

    I agree with MR above. The increase pension and medical benefits are probably in order but the elimination of collective bargaining rights is just a right-wing power grab that has little to do with Wisconsin’s budget woes

  • unions are killing this country. it’s that simple.

  • Heather

    Not the investment bankers? 😉

  • Frank

    Didn’t this kind of walkout to prevent action on a vote happen in Texas a few years back?

    And, I also think MR is right on – the Unions probably did have to give something back, but this measure is completely unreasonable.

  • Hrustar

    As a husband to a public school teacher and brother to a DOT worker, I can tell you that nether is under compensated for their job when compared to private sector position. Take away the financial package and they also have the added benefit and being virtually immune to unemployment.

    unions have raged against the machine for so long, they’ve forgotten to take a moment and look at its current state or mode of operation.

    unions serve no one well. there time has passed.

  • Noelle


    I’d argue that big corporations are killing this country, myself. Big business has the government wrapped around its little finger.

  • Josh

    The American Media is covering the story. There was a piece on NewsHour last night and I read an article right on the front of the NY Times website last night.

  • By paying government workers a higher salary than they would otherwise get in a free market, additional taxation is necessary to cover the difference. The typical government worker contributes little if any to their pensions and have health care plans that are far more superior than the non-government sector. The hullabaloo

    happening by the government workers this week is nothing more than wanting the private sector to pay for their extravagant benefits. Government paid workers deserve no more than the average worker in the state. The average non-government worker contributes to their own 401K retirement, pays a portion of their health care (substantially more than the government workers), and retires at 65. Some government paid workers can retire at age 55 with a full pension. The average non-government worker also gets paid what the market will bare and is based on their contribution to their employer, not how long they’ve been on the job. Support Governor Walker’s legislative agenda to stop this disparity and equalize the benefits provided to the government paid workers and bring it in line with the rest of us.

  • Noelle

    One of the points Bob has brought up before about this issue is that it pits union workers vs. union workers. Why exclude law enforcement and firefighers?

  • Neil

    Damn those evil unions FORCING powerless management to sign contracts against their will. Shameful.

  • I will add, ALL government workers, government politicians from BOTH sides of the isle should have CONTRIBUTION pensions not DEFINED.

  • i will add, unions are not the only thing killing this country. eliminating unions will not eliminate all of our problems. but its a big place to start. as is the banking industry. they too deserve a swift kick for their greed and stupidity. but if i could fix one thing and one thing only, it would be unions. We can protect ourselves from banks. we cannot protect ourselves form unions.

  • HD

    My mother’s a public worker in Wisconsin. She and her coworkers (for a county) have been paying more than what the bill says for years.

    She’s a 20+ year employee and makes less than I do. If she’d started the same job in the private sector at the same time she’d be making about 25% more. She also pays more for essentially the same health insurance I have.

  • Bob Collins

    Republican leaders say the unions aren’t losing collective bargaining rights. They’ll still have those rights for wages. But, they say, they will no longer have the right to bargain for benefits, those will be — as with private employers — in a compensation package which employees can choose from.

  • Chris

    Hrustar: “unions serve no one well.”

    Sound like they serve your wife and brother well.

  • torminator

    Thank you for bringing additional attention to the plight of Wisconsin’s public sector employess who are in the fight for their lives. The lies & misinformation perpetuated by the Republicans & big business is sickening. There are demonstations state-wide in every big city & small town – not just at Madison.

    Government workers in WI are NOT “overpaid” – we in fact make 8% LESS than the private sector, AFTER you include our benefits & for my particular profession the difference is 38% LESS !!! This is based upon independent, non-partisan research. But because the Guv has an agenda & promises to big business to fulfill, this “budget reapir bill” is being railroaded through the legislature. People such as Chris Kilber have no clue.

    We will continue to fight & stand together.

    AND I am NOT a member of any union, but I recognize the peril to ALL middle class workers if these destructive tactics are allowed to continue unchecked.

  • Heather

    I’m interested in where your “government worker vs. private sector worker” comparison information is coming from, Chris. Are you comparing public school teachers with private school teachers, for instance? And how do you compare a DOT worker with someone in the private sectore? What’s the equivalent? I get the sense that people are using these terms really broadly when there’s not much basis for comparison. If I’m wrong about that, I’m curious about the actual information.

    And how are we to account for the very broad range of compensation in “the private sector”? I’m currently working in the private sector with NO benefits. Should that be the benchmark? Or should we all get what the CEO gets?

  • Noelle

    The squabble over who gets how many benefits and how much they pay for them is exactly why I think health insurance should NOT be linked directly with employment.

  • Chris

    Unless I’m mistaken, Bob, the bill also limits wage increases to inflation unless put to a public referendum. I don’t remember the last time a private employer put anybody’s wage increase up for a popular vote. So besides all the anti-union poison in the bill (right-to-work language), it is patently hostile to public servants.

    What difference does it make if you can “bargain” for a wage increase, if it can be rejected by voters and/or negated by an unbargainable benefits cut?

  • vjacobsen

    We’d all be much better off if all workers stood together and fought for better pay, work conditions, and benefits.

    Statements like, “Unions are killing the country.” are silly. There’s no evidence to back that up. In fact, I bet there’s piles of evidence to the contrary.

  • vjacobesn: No evidence of union damage? I suggest you compare the fiscal health of union vs non union auto factories in the US.

    I also suggest you listen to the former Superintendent of Washington DC public School System or watch Waiting for Superman.

    When you have researched those, I will be happy to provide more evidence.

  • Jessica

    As a WIsconsinite literally sitting next to the Capitol in my office (just back from the rally), I have got to say you’re right, there needs to be more access to public government for those who cannot attend- I should not have to read about it on a Minnesota blog. Nothing is available live on Wisconsin Eye- it keeps playing the Republican news conference instead of the live events all morning!

    And one more thing: Union busting is disgusting.

  • When workers get paid for their contribution and productivity, not by their seniority, and have the ability to negotiate their pay scale above and beyond the ceiling of their Union, just like the private sector, workers will be pigeon holed into their job. The unions are capping your

    Unions hold back the creativity, drive, purpose, meaning, and ambitions of people. Why would you work hard if there is no reward? Why choose to work this way. You are just promoting mediocrity. I hope you have higher aspirations for living. I have faith in you.

  • brian

    //I will add, ALL government workers, government politicians from BOTH sides of the isle should have CONTRIBUTION pensions not DEFINED.

    I think that would be unfortunate. Defined contribution plans (401k, 403b, etc) cost less for a reason. They push all of the risk onto the employee. I think we will see in the coming years that these plans don’t really work as planned.

    Part of the reason companies or states offer pension plans is to get rid of (presumably) higher paid and less productive older workers. If people’s 401k’s happen to lose their value, they are going to continue working which defeats the entire purpose. Why have a retirement plan at all? Just hope employees save enough on their own as they should.

    What should happen is public pension sponsors need to put the amortized future pension costs on their books (which currently isn’t done since they aren’t required to).

    Sorry, this is a little off topic.

  • vjacobsen

    The companies that have done better might be non-union, but they are also newer companies, typically with fewer legacy costs. They also, for a period of time, made much, much better products. However, I’m not saying the unions that represent auto workers are perfect. In fact, they might not be. But as is true with everything, there’s always a bad one in the bunch.

    As far as Waiting for Superman, no I did not see the movie (my God, to have that kind of free time!), but I am well aware of the argument. I do know from people who saw the movie (some, I will admit, are teachers) that it’s a little misleading and most people who know anything about education will say that it’s not really that spot-on.

    I come from a family of union workers (IBEW, specifically) and married into a family where my husband’s father and grandfather worked for the same company, but chose not to unionize. Guess who was happier? And guess who is looking at a more secure retirement? And other than people who just hate unions, I’ve never heard any argument that the IBEW is killing companies.

  • Luke

    Government unions should be outlawed COMPLETELY! If they don’t like their job, look for another one. These teachers are nothing more than coal miners in skirts.

  • Bob Collins

    I’m not sure how many of you are new to News Cut but this word of advice: Lose the insults and try an intelligent exchange of different opinions with people who you respect and who respect you.

  • Josh

    Unions aren’t killing America, actually lack of Unions is what is killing the American middle class.

  • Noelle

    “These teachers are nothing more than coal miners in skirts.”

    Luke, what a sexist and awful statement. Those “coal miners in skirts” are the people on the front lines of shaping the next generation of human beings, and they work damn hard for their money. It’s not an easy job, and in the past the fringe benefits were one of the few redeeming factors.

  • The State is the legal apparatus perverted, forever seeking out the means of its own support and finding it in the form of interest groups yearning for special privilege. For example, unions are a component of the state. National legislation grants certain privileges and immunities to unions which are denied to other organizations and individuals. We have the local government forcing us to fund a failing government school system with the threat of taking away our home. We have property owners being told what, where, how big, they can erect buildings on their own property. We have helmet and seat-belt laws.. We have ordinances telling us to mow our grass. We have the state telling us how much to pay an employee. We have the state telling us who we have to employ. We have the state telling us what we can sell and at what price. We have the state telling parents that “they” (a.k.a. government run schools) know better than them, how and what topics to indoctrinate their children with. Alas, the state has created more than 100 federal regulatory agencies in fields ranging from trade to communications, from nuclear energy to product safety, and from medicines to employment opportunity. We have laws even telling us what we can say or do, even if it conflicts with our religious beliefs. All of these examples and more are products of statism, state intervention in personal, social or economic matters. What is the hallmark of Socialism? It’s the state.

  • John O.

    It’s the same “state” Chris that has allowed some of the WORLD’S largest financial institutions to take billions of dollars in mortgages from people from all walks of life and gamble through derivatives and other sketchy schemes to enrich their own pocketbooks.

    How did that one work out?

  • Jamie

    “Unions hold back the creativity, drive, purpose, meaning, and ambitions of people. . . You are just promoting mediocrity.” ~ chris kilber

    Blah blah blah… You are just spewing the Republican manual and talking points. And there’s no truth to this or anything else you’ve said here.

    There’s just as much creativity, ambition, drive, purpose, and meaning (maybe more) in my union job as there was with non-union jobs I’ve had.

    Also, contrary to what you said, union members don’t get raises just because of seniority. They also have to meet goals and other performance measures just as non-union workers do. They can also be fired if they don’t meet expectations, just like non-union workers, except with a union there’s protection from capricious or vindictive discipline. There is no “immunity” from being fired or laid off when you’re in a union.

    One of the weirdest things I’ve read here (hrustar) is “We can protect ourselves from banks, but not from unions.” Nobody I know can “protect” themselves from banks. How can you say that after what the banks and Wall Street did to us recently (and continue to do)?

    Your apparent desire to be protected from unions probably means that you’re a manager or owner of a business who wants to pay your employees eight dollars an hour without any meaningful benefits.

  • Public Pension Funding that is unfunded in Wisconsin is $63,000,000,000 Billion. That’s over $10,000 per every single man women and child in the state right now. This number is only growing if something doesn’t change. Where will that money come from. The taxpayers.

    This doesn’t include Federal programs, Social Security, Medicare, and the other Federal liabilities.

    Enough is enough.

  • Bob Collins

    The pension question is really interesting to me, but it also brings up the previous question: Why excuse firefighters and police officers from relief from the pension obligations when, presumably, they’re a significant pension class?

    I don’t know Wisconsin state government very well but I know many police in the country are fully vested in their pension plans after 20 years.

    I know of a couple of friends of mine — living in Arizona — who have three pensions because they worked first for a city, then a county, and then private company and got fully vested after 20 years of their civil service.

    Is that the case in Wisconsin. If so, do teachers get fully vested at a young age, too?

  • Former WI Son

    I think that I have a solution that will solve many state and some of the federal budget woes– eliminate the deductibility of home mortgage interest. (I have a home mortgage) Most state income tax is based on the federal 1040. There is no possible way that anyone can claim that this is “not fair.” (You can get rid of renter’s credits too.) Mortgage interest deductibility is unfair to non-home owners. It fueled the rapid increase in home sales by providing “free” churning of home sales/flipping. It has to be considered more regressive than property tax because the larger the mortgage, the more interest and thus the bigger the tax break. If you don’t own a home– no tax break.

  • Bob Collins

    For what it’s worth, I see that Rep. Mark Buesgens (R-Jordan) filed legislation today ending public pensions for state workers in Minnesota.

  • Former WI Son

    We are in a race to the bottom (or at least Mississippi). The sense-of-community is disappearing in this nation. It is most talked about with regards to the wars (soldiers serving with no sacrifice by those not serving), but it is really becoming systematic. As a history student, and history is cyclical, America is now the Roman Empire. While we may not be over-run by hoards from the north (unless we include William Shatner) we are being consumed from within. Just as Reagan used an expanded military budget and arms race to collapse the USSR, Osama bin Laden is using that lesson to enable American to spend itself into destruction. Even ObL could not have anticipated the greed of the upper 1% of the nation to hood-wink the upper middle class to turn on itself. Now, as individuals, we feel we are advancing economically when we are able to force others to regress economically. Instead of Kennedy’s ‘ a rising tide lifts all boats’ we are busily drill holes in the boats of others to sink them.

  • Jamie

    “. – Columnist Patrick McIlheran of the Journal Sentinel: . . . vs. columnist Eugene Kane…”

    Bob I haven’t had time to look at these links, but I don’t understand why you wrote “vs.” They both sound pretty negative from the quotes you selected.

  • Bob Collins

    One is pro union. One is not.

  • Jamie

    Well, I assumed that, but the quotes didn’t look like it. I’ll go and read them later.

  • Please read the article for more information.

    Some of the more interesting quotations:

    “The state’s fiscal bureau — the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office — concluded that Wisconsin isn’t even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.”

    ‎”Unlike true austerity measures — service rollbacks, furloughs, and other temporary measures that cause pain but save money — rolling back worker’s bargaining rights by itself saves almost nothing on its own. But Walker’s doing it anyhow.”

    My brother’s response when I asked him how things were at the capitol at the moment; “Loud.”

  • Jamie

    This is a piece with some info I didn’t know about. Can’t remember how I found it:

  • Heather

    From the Cap Times:

    Basically, there was no budget crisis until Walker created one…

  • brian

    // $63,000,000,000 Billion

    I assume this is a typo… you either get to use all of those zeros, or the word billion, not both.

    //I don’t know Wisconsin state government very well but I know many police in the country are fully vested in their pension plans after 20 years.

    Private companies are required to vest their employees 100% after 5 years.

    I agree that the unfunded pension liability is a problem, but that doesn’t mean the entire idea of a traditional pension plan is bad. It just means the legislature shouldn’t hide the costs every year.

  • Jamie

    “Basically, there was no budget crisis until Walker created one…”

    …by “pushing through $140 million in new spending for special-interst groups in January.” -from the column cited above.

    And his “repair bill” would, in addition to busting unions, give tax breaks to his wealthy friends and corporate interests who contributed to his and other Republicans’ campaigns.

    “fully vested in their pension plans after 20 years…” “Private companies are required to vest their employees 100% after 5 years.”

    Being fully vested in your pension plan is different from being able to retire. Just clarifying…

  • Eric

    So, if big banks rip us off – then it’s ok for unions to do the same? So perhaps banks ripped us off because unions have been ripping us off for years too.

    I’m really tired if this polarized debate about class warfare or the “rights” of workers or “evil” big business. In any group of anything there will be some bad eggs in the bunch. Some businesses are not ethical. Some unions are not ethical. Some people are not ethical. It doesn’t mean all of them are. Take for example Costco. The CEO/founder tries to keep wages at somewhere almost double of minimum wage for the workers and takes a salary of $500,000 for himself (with bonuses and such I hear its about $3 million total). Not bad for an “evil” big business that has revenue of $71 BILLION.

    So again, let’s stop with this polarized debate and talk about the real problems…which I will continue next.

  • Eric

    So where are the problems? It is we continue to bring people into the system when we can’t afford it. If someone starts when they are 25, works for 30 years, gets 90% of the average of the last 5 years of their salary for another 23 years (male life expectancy 78, higher for women) with 3-5% raises every year and usually nearly full medical benefits…the person makes much more in retirement than working. How long would a business last if they had to pay for 2 workers and yet only half of them worked (GM or Chrysler anyone??)?

    Now, we promised people benefits. Especially those in retirement or near it, we have to keep that promise. But as we move forward, the government negotiators and the unions both need to realize these benefits can’t continue forever unless we either increase the number of service years, reduce the benefit amount, or go to a defined contribution plan. When pension plans were devised, the average person collected for 5 years. Doesn’t work that way anymore.

    The other thing about government unions is they need to do one of 2 things…either be “busted” or stop contributing to political campaigns and ads. It is a conflict of interest when you spend money to hire the person you will eventually negotiate with.

  • John O.

    The Citizens United decision by SCOTUS has kinda taken care of any legitimate argument for now trying to take away union rights to contribute to campaigns.

    Personally, I’d just as soon see both labor and business not allowed to contribute, but that’s just one person’s view.

  • Jamie

    First, public employee unions don’t negotiate with the politicians they endorse, nor do they with the politicians they don’t endorse. They negotiate with the management of the agencies the employees work at. There is no conflict of interest.

    On the other hand, there definitely IS a conflict of interest when corporations and their fat cat owners contribute to Republican politicians’ campaigns and then those politicians not only provide huge tax breaks and direct subsidies to those corporations (as Walker has done), but they also try to bust the unions those corporations’ employees belong to.

    And what we see in Wisconsin is just the beginning of the union busting. Republicans would like to bust all unions, and if they succeed in wisconsin with busting the public employees’ unions, they will go after other unions too. Republicans are always trying to bust unions. One of them has proposed “zero-ing out” the budget of the National Labor Relations Board.

    Re: John O… I don’t know what the ratio was of union contributions vs. corporate contributions in the 2010 election, but everything I’ve heard says that corporations will be contributing WAY more money to political campaigns than unions will. You shouldn’t talk of them together as though they’re equal.