All eyes are on Wisconsin as the arrogant, anti-union Governor Walker’s attempt to use the state fiscal crisis as pretext for abolishing the collective bargaining rights of state employees has provoked an Egyptian-style uprising in the streets of Madison.
Tens of thousands of workers and their allies are in the second week of protests in the Wisconsin capitol in an attempt to block the vote on a bill that would shift medical and pension costs onto the backs of public workers and make public employee unions virtually illegal. “This is class war!” chanted a kindergarten teacher as she led a sit-in in the State Capitol building. “I’ve never been prouder of our movement that I am at this moment,” said Wisconsin State Fed President Phil Nuenfeldt.
Wisconsin is one of several states where public workers rights to form unions are under attack. On February 17, 5,000 workers demonstrated in Columbus Ohio as hearing opened on similar legislation in that state.
The healthcare crisis is both an immediate and long-term cause of these attacks. Supported by a sophisticated and well-funded national anti-union apparatus, more and more state governors claim that they have to bust public workers’ unions in order to force workers to assume the burden of escalating healthcare costs. They seek to capitalize on the anger of many private sector employees, many of whom have already lost access to affordable healthcare.
In Wisconsin, the combined pension and medical givebacks would reduce the take home pay of many public employees by up to 20%. While the unions have announced that they are prepared to accept these concessions in exchange for the preservation of the right to bargain, the Governor refuses to accept the deal. He wants the unchallenged ability to impose even more severe cuts on the workers as the fiscal crisis continues.
Rising healthcare costs are the cause of the current fiscal crisis faced by most states. “The long-term horror stories of exploding deficits are entirely the result of a broken health care system,” notes Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research. “Currently, per person health care costs in the United States are more than twice the average as in the countries with longer life expectancies than the United States. The projections show per person costs in the United States rising to three and four times the average in other countries… [Politicians] hide this health care cost problem as a budget problem.”
Last year’s passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act (PPACA) does little to solve this crisis. Only a publicly financed, single-payer, Medicare-for-All system that eliminates the wastefulness and profiteering of the private insurance industry can provide healthcare as a right to everyone in America while controlling costs.
In Vermont they know this is true. Instead of scapegoating public employees, they have embarked on an effort to implement a state healthcare system that is consistent with human rights principles. After reviewing the recommendations in the Hsaio Report (.pdf), the state legislature is considering legislation submitted by Governor Shumlin (who ran for office last November on a solid single-payer platform). While the proposed bill is not perfect, many feel it can provide a starting point to begin to lay out an alternative to the mean-spirited, anti-worker tone of debates over healthcare in most other states.
The Vermont Workers Center is leading the fight to make healthcare a human right. At the request of state labor organizations and consistent with Resolution 34 (.pdf) passed at its 2009 Convention, the AFL-CIO has announced that it will support this effort with staff and resources.
“There will be a lot of work to be done to make improvements and additions to this bill,” said Vermont Workers Center President Peg Franken. “We will have to overcome all the paid lobbyists and advertisements bought to try to scare and divide us. The only way to do this is by continuing the grassroots organizing around the state which got us here.”
The Labor Campaign for Single Payer has vowed to act in solidarity with workers everywhere who fight to maintain access to affordable healthcare for themselves and their families. Nowhere today is that fight sharper than the state of Wisconsin. And nowhere is the long-term solution closer to realization than the state of Vermont.
Actions in solidarity with the Wisconsin workers are being planned this week in Massachusetts, Maryland, Washington and dozens of other cities. Check with your Central Labor Council for information about events in your area. If none are planned, offer to help organize one!