Week In Politics: Wisconsin Protest

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Host Michele Norris speaks with our political commentators — E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and Linda Chavez, a syndicated columnist and chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity — about the ongoing protests surrounding planned budget cuts in Wisconsin.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, says his proposal to constrict collective bargaining rights for most state employees is absolutely necessary. He says the state faces a multibillion dollar budget shortfall. So the proposal is to eliminate collective bargaining except on wage increases. And any increases would be limited to nothing more than inflation.

Now, we're going to stick with this for our regular Week in Politics chat today. I'm joined now by our regular political watchers, E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Welcome, E.J.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, The Washington Post): Good to be with you.

NORRIS: And standing in for David Brooks today, we're also joined by Linda Chavez. She's a syndicated columnist and chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Welcome to you, too.

Ms. LINDA CHAVEZ (Chairman, Center for Equal Opportunity): Great to be with you, Michel.

NORRIS: So, this showdown in Madison, Wisconsin between big labor and the Republican-led government, is it much bigger than just Wisconsin? I'm interested, E.J., the president decided not to steer clear of this. As one columnist noted, he's essentially sending a strong message to all those protesters chanting on the streets that I've got your back. What do you take from this, that the White House wade into these waters?

Mr. DIONNE: This is a hugely important fight. I mean, very few people predicted that we were going to be looking at what we were looking at in Egypt. And very few people predicted that we'd be sitting here talking about the future of the American labor movement. I'd love to sing some union songs, but I'll spare everyone that today.

What you have here is the beginning of what I think is a systematic effort by Republicans to weaken or break public employee unions. This is not about budgets, in the end. In fact, if you look at the budget problem in Wisconsin is nothing like New York or California. And, indeed, the shortfall is in part because of some tax cuts Governor Walker and the Republicans passed.

So this is about power. And he's not even applying this to all of the unions. It just so happens that the unions that were sympathetic to him in the last election are not covered by this. And so they're trying to take a chunk out of the Democrats' organizing base and Barack Obama is very aware of the dangers of that.

NORRIS: Linda, is E.J. right? Is this really a philosophical battle?

Ms. CHAVEZ: I think it is a big philosophical battle. I do think it is about spending. I do think it is about what public employees have done to state and local budgets across the country. And I do think that the whole question about public employees unions' roles in politics is very important.

I mean, if you look at the last election, 2010, the AFL-CIO spent $100 million and 90-some percent, 98, probably, percent of that money went to Democrats. You had the American Federation of State (unintelligible) and municipal employees spent $50 million electing Democrats. So the Democratic Party is very much beholden to these public employee unions.

And there is no question that Republicans believe that the kind of benefits that you see for public employee union members are part of what's busting the bank in many, many states across the country, not least of all, Wisconsin.

Mr. DIONNE: Although that's part of what the argument is about because a lot of these states aren't facing problems. Yes, there are some pension deals that were made that were probably too generous. But the fact is, a lot of states are facing problems simply because of the cyclical downturn and a lot of Republicans are using that as an excuse to bust the unions.

And I think what scares the union movement is that you've had a severe decline in private sector unionism. And you also had the Citizens United case, which immensely strengthens the power of corporations in politics. Now, viewed by the union movement, they're going after the last bastion of labor strength, and that's in the states. And I think you're going to see that in Ohio and you're going to see it in another place.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, we are seeing it in Ohio already.

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah.

NORRIS: And this is starting...

Ms. CHAVEZ: And possibly Michigan, although the governor there has said that he's not going to take quite the hard line that his colleague in Wisconsin has. But the fact is, you are right about what's happened to the union movement. Used to be that we'd think of unions and we'd think of people like autoworkers, electricians, building trades people.

NORRIS: Now, we're talking about teachers, state employees there.

Ms. CHAVEZ: We're talking about teachers. Now, we are talking about the union movement is now - last year, for the very first time, public employee unions in absolute numbers outnumbered private sector union members. And so that's a big change in the union movement. That is where the power of unions come from. The unions have been declining overall and they've been declining in the private sector precipitously for the last six decades.

NORRIS: So, are we seeing, is this an opportunistic moment for the unions outside Wisconsin and for Democrats? Is this the beginning of a Tea Party-like movement possibly for the political left?

Ms. CHAVEZ: I don't think so. I think that, you know, frankly, unions aren't terribly popular in American politics today and you've got a lot of people -you've got nine percent unemployment. You've got workers who are paying big chunks of their paychecks for their healthcare benefits.

They look at the people in Wisconsin and they say, gee, you're being asked to spend 12.6 percent contribution towards your health benefits? You're being asked to contribute to your pension benefits? I've had to do that and, frankly, you've got a job and I don't. So I think they're really not necessarily going to be winning (unintelligible).

NORRIS: But on the other side, are there people who will look at this and feel some sort of sympathy for the people (unintelligible) standing out there?

Mr. DIONNE: Right. I think Linda perfectly represented one side of the argument. The other side of the argument is, you know, the only workers left who have decent pension coverage, who have decent, really, reasonably generous healthcare coverage, are the unionized public employees.

And so what's going on here is that this bastion of the middle class in a way that autoworkers used to be and steel workers used to be, is now under attack and they want to take those rights away from them. So I think the unions have a real chance of getting public sympathy out of this fight. We'll see how it plays out.

NORRIS: We could go on but we are out of time. Thanks to both of you, have a good weekend.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you so much.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Thank you.

NORRIS: Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist and chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity. And E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post. Take care.

Mr. DIONNE: You too.

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