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Wisconsin Budget Battle Targets Women and People of Color

| March 11, 2011

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Wisconsin teachers stick up for themselves. Photo by C. Haese

It's not the first time budget cutters have manipulated stereotypes to scapegoat groups of women, as freelance writer and Wisconsin native Kate McCormack explains. 

Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and Florida are taking advantage of budget deficits in their states to undermine public sector unions. They hope to justify this unprecedented power play by transforming public sector workers into the next “welfare queens,” as Truthout writer Adam Bessie and others have argued, citing the Ronald Reagan coinage.

Last month Governor Scott Walker threw Wisconsin into chaos when he proposed the Budget Repair Bill, which strips public sector unions of their right to collectively bargain and decimates a host of other social programs. Shock and anger at the direct attack on fundamental worker’s rights brought tens of thousands of teachers, nurses, students and their supporters to the Capitol in protest. Fourteen Democratic senators fled the state in order to delay passage of the bill.

In spite of the outrage Governor Walker refused to negotiate, falsely stating that stripping unions of their power will solve the budget problem. In a shocking development on the night of March 9, Senate Republicans split the budget provisions containing the attack on collective bargaining from the fiscal items in order to circumvent the rule requiring quorum. Republicans then passed the bill 18-1. The Democratic senators were not present for the vote.

Once news of the maneuver spread thousands of protesters stormed the Capitol. Police attempted to block their entry but eventually gave way to the numbers and several hundred people spent the night. After a delay the next morning caused by protesters, the State Assembly finally passed the bill March 10 by a vote of 53 to 42. Democrat Peter Barca, the minority leader, expressed his disappointment according to the New York Times, but said he didn't think the vote would stand, adding "we do have recourse in the courts." Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employee’s Union stated, “The truth is that none of the provisions that he asked for in this worker’s rights attack had anything to do with the budget… Walker and the Republicans have declared war on the middle class and working families.”

To mobilize support for their cause conservatives in Wisconsin and nationally have launched a smear campaign claiming that public school teachers and other government workers have luxurious lifestyles and need to sacrifice.

Abbie Fishman’s life doesn’t sound decadent. A 20-year veteran English teacher and literacy coach in the Milwaukee Public School system, she is worried about her family’s financial future, uncertain if the new round of pink slips will target recent hires or veteran teachers who cost the system more. She worries about paying the mortgage on the single family home she and her husband purchased a few years ago and paying bills from her cancer treatments last year. Even if Fishman is lucky enough to keep her job she knows that ‘luxuries’ like traveling, continuing her professional studies and retirement before social security kicks in will not be options for her. “We live fairly austerely already…passage of this bill will compromise our modest lifestyle.”

The rhetoric being used by the governor and his supporters to discredit public workers is eerily similar to the campaign used against single mothers during the welfare debates of the 1990s. At that time, the right-wing mobilized public anger by pushing a manufactured image of an inner-city woman of color who gave birth for welfare checks and lived an undeserved life of comfort.

Both conservative campaigns demonized people who are deemed not to be productive enough, says Jane Collins, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom in the Low-Wage Labor Market. Supposedly teachers do not produce anything. “The battle line is about how services are not productive—also that the state is not a legitimate employer,” says Collins. The deep antipathy many Tea Party supporters and conservatives express towards government is a factor in their willingness to accept and promote myths about public employees.

Other similarities abound. Both campaigns rely on a false narrative that utilizes gender and racial stereotypes to demonize the target group as lazy and undeserving. Also, the first state in the union to begin implementing 'welfare reform' was Wisconsin—ground zero in today’s fight against public sector unions.

Most importantly, in both battles, women and people of color ultimately are the biggest losers, disproportionately affected by the budget cutting mania because they are more often employed in the public sector. Nationally, the public sector is the number one employer for African-American men and the number two employer for African-American women. Also on average nationally, women at the state and local levels make-up 52 percent and 61 percent respectively of public sector employees.

In Wisconsin Walker has specifically exempted the male-dominated firefighter and police unions, aiming his attack at predominantly female unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Teachers. In addition, women, especially women of color, continue to earn less than men for the same work. Slashing salaries and benefit in sectors where women are concentrated has a profound effect on their economic power, particularly at a time when budget cuts threaten funding for women and family health programs such as Title V in Wisconsin and Title X nationally as well as state insurance programs for women and children.

While many mainstream media outlets are promoting the right’s image of overpaid public employees, numerous studies have shown that public sector workers are not overpaid and are not the main reason for states financial woes.  The Economic Policy Institute found that government workers in Wisconsin already make the 'sacrifices' Walker calls for. When controlling for education and other factors, Wisconsin state and local government employees earn 4.8 percent less on average per year than their private sector counterparts. And in regard to their oft-derided pensions, McClatchy's Kevin G. Hall reports that government contributions to pension funds are also in line with the private sector at around 3.5 percent. Pulitzer-prize winner journalist David Kay Johnston explains on Tax.com that pension contributions are a form of deferred compensation accepted by workers and not some gift being taken from other taxpayers. The real reason for budget shortfalls is Republican unwillingness to spread the ‘sacrifice’ around through increased taxes or even a return to pre-Bush tax cut levels.

If economic facts are on the side of the teachers, nurses and daycare workers, why have many conservatives come to view them as greedy? It is instructive to look back to the earlier welfare battles when conservative leaders took advantage of existing stereotypes about women and people of color to create a scapegoat—the 'welfare queen'—for economic problems. They are using the same trick today by pushing a mythical image of the ‘bad teacher’ who doesn’t do her job but can’t be fired due to union protection.

Compared to the targets of welfare reform, public sector workers have been better able to mobilize their organized strength to fight against the right-wing’s attempts to demonize them. The response to attacks on public workers in Wisconsin has been overwhelming. For three straight weeks, protesters have gathered daily in the snow outside the capitol holding signs and chanting, “Kill the Bill,” and the 14 Democrats who left the state in order to deny Governor Walker a quorum resisted returning. On the national level, a recent poll found that 60 percent of Americans oppose weakening bargaining rights for unions.

Jane Collins also points out that public sector workers are refusing to let themselves be divided. Despite their exemption from the attack, police and firefighters have come out strongly in support of their union colleagues.

“The consequences are going to be gendered and raced, but the movement itself is not fractioning along those lines,” Collins says. “Right now the message is ‘this hurts us all.’”

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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