Nel's New Day

April 2, 2012

Wisconsin’s Journey to Freedom, Part II

Wisconsin—a place where the conservative governor Scott Walker stripped fundamental rights, slashed budgets for health and education, silenced citizens in the formal political process, and erased the possibility of public good or trust from state agencies. A place where Walker, who campaigned on getting more jobs for people and improving the economy, took $56 million from the working poor by reducing the Earned Income Tax Credit while giving $36 million to wealthy Wisconsin investors in a capital gains tax break. A place where Walker used $25.6 million of the $31.6 million Wisconsin’s state government received from the foreclosure fraud settlement to help close a budget shortfall in the state’s general fund.

Although union-busting was one of Walker’s passions, unions weren’t the only losers in Walker’s Wisconsin. The final budget bill allowed “direct conversion” of credit unions, owned by the share-holders, into investor-owned banks. Credit unions can return dividends to members through offering banking services with lower fees and loans at lower rates than banks. Communities without credit unions have higher fees at ATMs and for other banking services. The 220 credit unions in Wisconsin are often in rural areas that lack investor-owned banks. There was no notification of the credit union amendment to the public before the legislators voted.

Over a month ago, the state legislative bodies passed SB 202, repealing the 2009 Equal Pay Act allowing people to sue employers who illegally discriminate against them based on protected class status. The bill was sponsored by ALEC members, part of the coalition funded by wealthy conservatives such as the Koch brothers and huge corporations such as AT&T, Coca-Cola, and VISA. Identical bills that support anti-immigration, photo IDS, defunding unions, privatizing schools and public assets, corporate tax loopholes, etc. combined with those that stop states from raising revenue have popped up in all the 26 conservative-controlled states, thanks to ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).

Like The Lily Ledbetter Act, The Equal Pay Act was developed to provide legal protection to women who are unfairly compensated based on their gender. One Republican explained the repeal of equal pay for all by saying that many businesses and employers asked for the bill. (I wonder how many votes from women these conservative legislators expect to get in the 2012 election.) Before Wisconsin passed the Equal Pay Act in 2009, Wisconsin was 36th in the worst pay gap; in the next two years the state climbed to the 24th position. Thus far I haven’t found any record of Walker signing the bill, but he is expected to do so.

Not content with destroying women’s pay equality, Wisconsin legislators have also passed another anti-choice bill, this one requiring doctors to verify—in writing—that women were not coerced into abortions. And to guarantee a higher percentage of teen pregnancy, the legislators also passed a bill requiring abstinence-only instruction for teenagers. (If they want to analyze the increase in teen pregnancy Wisconsin will have because of this law, they should check the high number of Texas teen girls who get pregnant thanks to abstinence-only education.) The Wisconsin bill also requires sexual education courses to discuss parental responsibility and the socioeconomic benefits of marriage (I’m guessing heterosexual), as well as explain pregnancy, prenatal development, and childbirth.

Following the loss of collective bargaining for 175,000 state public employees, school districts are now imposing strict and arbitrary rules on teachers without any mediation with teacher unions.  For example, New Berlin not only increased workdays for teachers with no pay increases but also created a dress code: no jeans, no open shirts, and no skirts that are not below the knee. Teachers cannot have any students as Facebook “friends” and must report any traffic incidents or tickets to the school district. School districts who want to work with teachers to design an employee handbook are afraid to do this because they might violate the ban against collective bargaining. The law has moved teachers to the level of serfs with no rights.

What kind of lawmakers have voted in favor of laws that allows such abuse of employees? Rep. Don Pridemore is a prime example. Rather than allowing an abused woman to divorce the man who beats her up, she should try to remember what she loves about him. Pridemore said, “If they can re-find those reasons and get back to why they got married in the first place it might help.”  With Sen. Glenn Grothman, he also co-sponsored not only the photo ID law, now declared unconstitutional, but also a bill that credits child abuse to single motherhood.

As the chair of the House Children and Families Committee, Pridemore wants to mandate the state Child Abuse Prevention Board to conduct public awareness campaigns emphasizing that single parenthood is a leading cause of child abuse. His co-sponsor, Grothman, said, “A child is 20 times more likely to be sexually abused if they are raised by say, a mother and a boyfriend, than their mother and father.” He failed to provide any support for this statement. Grothman, who has never been married, also wants to underscore “the role of fathers in the primary prevention of child abuse and neglect.”

There is hope in Wisconsin. Peter Rickman, a union organizer and former leader of Wisconsin’s Teaching Assistants Association, said they can create new organizations by bringing together community groups, political organizations, and unions that last beyond one protest or one election cycle. “We have strength in numbers, the 1 percent has the money,” he said. The logo of Wisconsin redesigned as a blue clenched fist still brings people together.

One person who continued to fight back against Walker and exercise his free speech is 36-year-old Azael Brodhead, Iraq veteran and state Department of Corrections probation and parole agent. For weeks he drove past Walker’s house, honked his horn, gave “the finger” through his sunroof, and shouted “Recall Walker.” When he was ticketed for “unnecessary blowing of horn,” he went to trial. Fined $166.20, he continued his routine—stopped the honking but kept up the yelling. “Probation agent is my day job,” said Brodhead. “Being a concerned citizen is 24-7.”

The Koch brothers bankrolling many of the conservative campaigns for Wisconsin legislators, including Walker, had a bad week in the state last week. Federal authorities are investigating Prosperity USA and Wisconsin Prosperity Network. At least one person being investigated is also involved in Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit cofounded by the conservative Koch brothers that helped organize the tea party movement in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Not much information yet about what’s happening but then it’s a secret investigation.

Much more about the effects of Wisconsin’s protests on the rest of the nation is in John Nichols’ book, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Occupy Wall Street.

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