February 18th, 2011
05:53 AM GMT
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New York (CNN) – We knew it was coming.

Sooner or later the austerity protests that swept through Athens, Madrid, Paris and London were bound to show up here in the U.S. and they have.  Thousands of teachers and supporters stormed on the state house in Madison, Wisconsin on Thursday to protest deep spending cuts.  The scene, which lit up Twitter (#Wisconsin) and social media, may just be the spark that inspires public employees across the country to take to the streets.

Why now?  It is budget time and officials in cities and states coast to coast are proposing huge cuts and higher taxes in order to try and close a collective $125 billion budget gap.  On the chopping block this time were areas traditionally off limits: Teachers, firemen, police and garbage collection.  We profiled a town in New Jersey caught in this very budget squeeze.

What we learned: there are no easy solutions and investors are increasingly concerned bankruptcy may have to be considered in at least some cases.

But there is something going on in Wisconsin which may be a more important theme to watch.  The newly-elected Republican Governor Scott Walker is not just trying to cut wages, he is trying to curtail the union’s collective bargaining power.  He has reportedly threatened to call in the National Guard to fill posts if union workers don’t turn up; something the AFL-CIO says hasn’t happened in Wisconsin since the 1930’s.

Union activists are outraged. U.S. President Obama also expressed concern saying that while he understand the need to make tough spending cuts, the measures in Wisconsin seemed more like “an assault on unions.”

But do average Americans agree….or care?  Many private sector workers are grappling with stagnant wages and must fund their own retirement.  They have been living a tough reality for years.  As they treasurer of Wisconsin told Richard Quest on his show Thursday, tax-payers think it is time union members share the pain too.

Will the majority of Americans buy that argument?  Or will they side with unions who say…burden the wealthy, not your neighbors who serve you in the community.

It is not at all clear – and that makes union members nervous.  As one of the firemen we interviewed for our piece told me, “After 9-11 we were heroes, people would shake our hands and ask to buy us drinks.  Ten years later and we are being painted as the bad guys.  What happened?”

What has happened, indeed. Is it time for unions to dig in, or should unions give up more?

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Karen

    Without a doubt this is a political power play. Break the unions, break democrat supporters.

    According to the New York Times, "the governor is refusing to accept his own share of responsibility for the state’s projected $137 million shortfall. Just last month, he and the Legislature gave away $117 million in tax breaks, mostly for businesses that expand and for private health savings accounts. That was a choice lawmakers made, and had it not been for those decisions and a few others, according to the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the state would have had a surplus."

    And the budget shortfall has nothing to do with union work or collective bargaining.
    The MacIver Institute writes that, "Agency overspending in medical assistance, the Public Defender’s Office, and in the Department of Corrections is the chief reason for the current shortfall. Making matters worse, moving forward into the next biennial budget, agency requests will outpace expected tax revenue by $3.6 billion."

    February 18, 2011 at 6:05 am |
  2. note2self

    Whats happening in Wisconsin just shows the true nature of today's GOP. The CEOs deserve the welfare, and the budgets will be balanced on the backs of the middle class and workers. Its naive to think that this has anything to due with closing a budget deficit. Its only aim is to weaken worker's rights. Compare the wages in right-to-work states with others states. Tax breaks for the rich, and the workers get screwed. Its not rocket science.

    February 18, 2011 at 6:32 am |
  3. Stacy

    Many public employees have accepted pay freezes since before the crisis began in 2008. This is difficult since many, if not most, public employees receive lower wages than their private sector counterparts. Walker's selective targeting of Wisconsin's unions (attacking teachers instead of police or firefighters) clearly indicate that this is an ideological attack, not a cost-savings measure. Taking away the right to collective bargaining has little to do with balancing the budget, and treats large swaths of Wisconsin workers as the problem, rather than partners in the solution.

    February 18, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  4. Mik

    Let's face it, America is falling behind the rest of the world in education. The GOP will do what it thinks is right for what they believe. Why is it that more and more American firms are turning to foreign workers to do the same job an American can do. The next step for the GOP Is to have american women breed with foreign men so the GOP will see smarter and better American men

    February 18, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  5. jporter

    It's really sad to see middle class Americans turning on each other in desperation. So called leaders who encourage this are either extremely short-sighted, ignorant, or downright venal. Time to wake up and start working together people.

    February 18, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  6. Thomas Hanson

    Not all the protesters on the campuus at Madison were union-sided. Taxpapyers have floated the reitirement pensions of union workers at the expense of their own livelyhood. And a union member who is guaranteed a check after retirement, why shouldn't they pay their portion as well. The private sector struggles with taxes and poor or no health care, while that appears to be difffernt for the union members. Look at California. Furloughs were mandatory for some public workers. You know, teachers always complain they don't make anything. So why do they all belong to a union then? It's time for them to put up or shut up. As for the Democratic Senators to cut and run is a disgrace for those who elected them to do their job. They are breaking their oath to the republic for the citizens of the state. So I'm an auto plant worker who makes $25/hr and I'm upset to pay a little more for my own retirement account, while the customer service rep who makes $10/hr keeps paying more and more so when the auto plant worker is tired of fixing bumpers he knows his pension will not be touched. Due to the union putting a strangle hold on the company. Why get a bond to pay off the shortfall. This creates more debt problems that will be passed on to the next generation. These pathogenic parasites called unions have catered to politicians to their advantage and it's time to stop.

    February 18, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  7. Tom Degan

    Dick Gregory once made a beautiful analogy comparing revolution to a coffee pot. The pot makes a whistling noise to warn us that it is boiling. (Boiling mad, in this case). If an attempt is made to ignore that noise by plugging up the hole, sooner or later that coffee pot is going to explode – burning everyone in the room.

    Can you hear that whistling noise, Governor Walker? That's the people of your state sending you a little message. You would be smart to listen to them. You would also be wise to pick up a couple Dick Gregory albums. The gem of wisdom paraphrased above is from the LP "Dick Gregory at Kent State". You can probably find it on ebay.


    Tom Degan

    February 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  8. Nancy Holden

    Walker and WI Republicans want to destroy unions. When they strike down those to our Left, that means WE become the Left, and will be the next targets for the Right-wingers. No one is safe in such a climate, as debt gets loaded on the backs of those who have just been stripped of power.

    February 18, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  9. @thomas hanson

    I think it is the low wages that drove teachers to form a union as the history of unions may show you it is the poorly paid who make them. Have you heard of the CEO union. Your post was great right up until you tried to make a point.

    February 18, 2011 at 5:22 pm |

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