Wisconsin anti-worker guv targets public education

Feb. 4 protest.Photo: Joe Brusky

Feb. 4 protest.
Photo: Joe Brusky

Resistance to Gov. Scott Walker’s 2015-17 budget proposal — Senate Bill 21, released in early February — is ongoing across Wisconsin. Walker’s proposals on behalf of Wall Street are a continuation of the international austerity assault by the banks and corporations that is ravaging Greece and Puerto Rico, Detroit and Wisconsin.

The University of Wisconsin, a 26-campus, public higher educational system, is world-renowned. Walker’s proposed cuts have drawn deep anger statewide and beyond. He wants to dismantle the “Wisconsin Idea” by eliminating shared governance and cutting a minimum of $300 million from the system, attacking faculty, staff, students and their communities.

He calls these proposals Act 10, after the Jim Crow austerity law that drew hundreds of thousands of labor, community and student protesters from around the world to the State Capitol in Madison in 2011.

Act 10 eliminated payroll dues deduction for public sector unions, cut wages for public sector workers by increasing health care and pension payments, and forced public sector unions to annually secure a 51 percent majority vote of the entire bargaining unit, not just of those who voted. Among other union-busting provisions, it mandated that public sector unions, if certified, could only bargain over wages up to the rate of inflation.

As a result, membership in public sector unions has plummeted to the lowest level in 20 years, health and safety measures have declined, privatization has taken place in the university system, and poverty — especially for children and communities of color — has skyrocketed. (wccf.org)

In the 2011-13 state budget cycle, the largest cuts to the UW System in history took place. And K-12 public education was subjected to massive cuts, while charter schools were increased.

It’s important to note that declining state support for public education has greatly accelerated in Wisconsin over the past three decades, under both Democrats and Republicans. Tuition and student debt are skyrocketing.

Attacks on public education and the unions harm people of color, women and the lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer community the most as laws, services and policies such as affirmative action, resource centers and cultural programs are reduced and/or eliminated.

The UW System is Wall Street’s major target, but other proposals in Bill 21 include: reducing the limit on lifetime workfare assistance from 60 to 48 months; drug testing of recipients getting unemployment insurance, Food Share and other benefits; and a 40 percent cut to Senior Care. These proposals will be taken up in the right-wing-controlled legislature over the coming weeks and months.

Various forms of people’s resistance are now in the planning stages.

The implementation of Act 10 has cut the power of public sector unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Teachers on UW campuses. Along with hundreds of millions in budget cuts, privatization of administrative services has increased, with possibly grave consequences to the Wisconsin Retirement System, a defined-benefit pension system.

In the fall of 2014, UW Superior outsourced 28 of its custodians to SSC Service Solutions. In place of the 28, who had received retirement and health benefits, SSC hired nine new workers at $8 to $9 an hour, with inferior and more costly benefits. As private sector employees, they are no longer in the state health and retirement systems. (wseu-24.org)

UW Wausau in Marathon County also privatized its custodial services in 2014, which could cost individual staff workers and their families hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime. Their communities will suffer, as lost sales and property taxes lead to declining services and the devastation of neighborhoods and communities, similar to Detroit’s experience.

Many union manufacturing jobs in the state were decimated by a combination of the North American Free Trade Agreement, multiple forms of outsourcing and capitalists replacing workers with technology in this era of dead-end capitalism.

This leaves staff jobs in the UW System as often the only living-wage opportunities available — with such benefits as state health insurance and a pension — for women and workers of color in rural and semi-rural areas. Senate Bill 21 would accelerate the campus-by-campus, piecemeal approach to privatization by some university chancellors, now called CEOs.

As of last July 1, all two-year colleges in the UW System and one four-year college had privatized all the formerly campus-owned bookstores. The new “provider” is Nebraska Book Co. In a continuation of bringing Southern-style labor law, policies and methods to Wisconsin, SSC and Nebraska Book Co. are based in “right-to-work” (for-less) states. In North Carolina, SSC’s base, collective bargaining is actually illegal.

But outrage and resistance are building statewide.

‘They say cut back. We say fight back!’

On Feb. 4, the day after Walker’s gubernatorial address at the State Capitol, hundreds of students at UW Milwaukee protested the proposed cuts to the university system. Organized by a variety of student and community organizations, and with staff and faculty support, protesters marched through the student union and rallied in the afternoon at Spaights Plaza to demand, “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts!”

Members of the Progressive Students of Milwaukee unveiled a banner over a third-floor railing that read: “They say cut back. We say fight back! No cuts to UW.”

In the evening hundreds more protested. The administration responded by calling out campus and Milwaukee police. (fightbacknews.org)

On Feb. 6, students, faculty, labor and community members — carrying signs reading, “No cuts, no layoffs, no privatization” and chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Walker’s cuts have got to go” — gathered outside the UW Board of Regents’ meeting in Madison. Board members, most of whom come from banking and corporate interests, responded by barring protesters from the public meeting.

The same day, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association held a community strategy session that drew over 400 public educators and their supporters.

Protests have also taken place at UW Eau Claire and other locations. Many more are planned, including a march and rally at UW Milwaukee on Feb. 7. For more information and updates, see facebook.com/OccupyRiverwest, facebook.com/psmuwm, #‎saveouruw‬, and wibailoutpeople.org.

Bryan G. Pfeifer is a UW Milwaukee alumnus, former editor-in-chief of the UWM Post and former co-coordinator of the Progressive Student Network at UWM.