By now everyone knows of the massive rallies in Wisconsin protesting the attacks on the middle class. The middle class represented by firefighters, police, those who plow our streets and keep our neighborhoods safe and clean. They are our neighbors, our children’s teachers, EMTs and nurses who come to our aid when we need them. They are also members of HPAE, 4000 nurses, health professionals and medical researchers at UMDNJ and Runnells.
While Wisconsin Governor Walkers’ assault on the right to bargain for decent working conditions is severe, it is also part of a national trend to make middle class workers pay for the economic crisis. So I traveled to Wisconsin, along with other HPAE members and staff, to show our support for nurses and other public service workers. By the time we got there, the Governor had shut down the Capitol, locking out hundreds if not thousands of protesters. A few hundred are still in the Capitol Building, because police refused to arrest them, and some even joined in the protest. In fact, firefighters and police are the clear heroes around here, leading many of the parades and photographed by nearly everyone.
That’s because even though Governor Walker exempted police and firefighters from the elimination of negotiating rights, they joined the protest – in huge numbers. Noone said it better than firefighter leaders: “We are the ones who run into the burning houses when everyone else is running out,” said one firefighter. “Well, the house of labor is on fire, and we are here.”
Well, the house of labor is under assault and so is the middle class that is represented by so many teachers, nurses, firefighters and police – from New Jersey to Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Indiana and Florida. In scores of states, new Republican legislators and Governors have proposed the elimination of bargaining rights, wage freezes and pension deductions. The budget crisis facing our states is a very direct result of Wall Street greed, its collapse and the subsequent loss of tax revenues due to high unemployment and business failings.
Over the past two weeks, the goals of Governor Walker have become clear to many here in Wisconsin, and around the country. And it is not about saving money in this year’s budget. Not only would the Governor’s legislative proposal take away democratic negotiating rights, but it would also allow his Cabinet to sell public utilities without bid, and reduce Medicaid services without legislation or public hearing or notice. It is drastic, and will undo years of democratic progress. Republican Governors and legislators blame the high salaries and benefits for public employees. This is simply false. Various studies have shown that employees in the public sector actually earn less than their counterparts in the private sector, and the shortfall in pension plans is due to the downtown in the stock market, and the failure by states like New Jersey to pay into the system even while borrowing against the funds. Throughout these bad economic times, public workers continued to pay their share into the pension plan.