Public Sector Workers Under Attack in Wisconsin

Republicans blame public sector workers for economic crisis.

A passionate debate has erupted across the United States about the right to collectively bargain and a fight has started for the very existence of public sector unions.

The epicentre of this battle is Wisconsin, a Midwestern state of six million people where the newly-elected Republican Governor Scott Walker has introduced a Bill – to Australians eerily reminiscent of WorkChoices – that would end collective bargaining rights for state employees. The Bill would also force employees to increase contributions to health and pension funds.

Hidden deep in Walker’s new laws are provisions that would allow the privatisation of key public assets at the whim of the Governor and without legislative oversight.

American economist Richard Wolff says these draconian measures are part of a wider national campaign to make local public-sector employees pick up a major share of the costs of the economic crisis.

Conservative governors in other states such as Ohio and Florida have flagged similar legislation.

‘The GFC has decimated federal, state and local budgets. Federal, state and local governments are staggering from reduced tax revenues because of unemployment, reduced production, lower investment and the housing collapse. There is a growing drive to cut services, wages, benefits and employment,’ he said.

Unions fight back

Walker’s vicious attack on public sector workers has provoked a backlash.

Unions have mobilised public support with massive daily rallies in the centre of Madison, Wisconsin’s capital.

Democratic Party politicians have tried to sabotage the Bill by fleeing to the neighbouring state of Illinois and preventing a quorum of the state legislature.

Even the Oscars were punctuated by public gestures of support by award winners.

The attack on public sector workplace rights has sparked a national discussion about unions and who should really be taking responsibility for the economic crisis.

A majority of Americans support the unions’ cause

A majority of Americans are opposed to cutting the pay and rolling back the rights of public sector workers in order to reduce state budget deficits, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

  • The poll found that: Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one (60% to 33%);
  • They oppose (56% to 37%) cutting the pay or benefits of public employees to reduce deficits;
  • 61% of those polled – including just over half of Republicans – said they thought the salaries and benefits of most public employees were either ‘about right’ or ‘too low’ for the work they do.

It’s about power not budget

Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist writing in the New York Times, said the war by the Republican Party against unions in Wisconsin was not about the state budget but about a bigger issue of power.

‘On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate. Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counter-weights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions,’he said.

‘You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognise that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the past 30 years – which it has – that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.’

Krugman says it is ironic that the very people who caused the crisis in the first place are driving the anti-union agenda in Wisconsin.

‘The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was super wealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-2009, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch.

‘And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.’



Joe Cidoni, an American nurse who works as an RN at Gosford Hospital, says the feedback he is getting from his friends in America is one of disgust at the attack on public sector workers in Wisconsin.

‘The [Wisconsin] government is trying to undermine the rights of workers to negotiate their conditions and their work environment. We are going back to the dark days when workers were dictated to,’ he says.

‘We have a long history of trade unionism in the United States. It’s only through the labour movement that there is a voice for the little guy. Now they are trying to take away that voice.’

Joe says he is proud of the way public sector workers and their unions are fighting back.

‘What is important is that people get organised, stay organised and stay the course. If we do, we will win as we did before.’


The Republicans rammed through their legislation that effectively ends collective bargaining in Wisconsin. To pass the bill, the Republicans removed all language about budgets, finances and fiscal impacts. This, they said, meant it had no financial impact and therefore didn’t require the 60% quorum required by Wisconsin parliamentary rules. Consequently, the bill passed without the presence of the Democrats.


Former Liberal Industrial Relations Minister Peter Reith has resurfaced from obscurity to urge Tony Abbott ‘not to be afraid’ or be ‘spooked’ by a scare campaign on WorkChoices and make labour market reform Australia’s number one priority.

Reith’s restatement of a Liberal Party article of faith was warmly supported by a host of current Liberal Party backbenchers.

‘Peter Reith has been there, he’s done this stuff before. He is absolutely spot on the money,’ said South Australian Liberal MP Jamie Briggs.

ACTU President Ged Kearney said that Peter Reith’s call to arms was further proof that WorkChoices was embedded in the Liberal Party’s DNA.

‘Tony Abbott’s claims during last year’s election that the Liberals would never go back to WorkChoices are a sham.’