February 18th, 2011
05:53 AM GMT
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?
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