The march of the Imperial Walker

We’re two weeks into the Chedder revolution of Wisconsin. Students, much like those here at Emerson, have taken it upon themselves to stand up against their government, “walk like an Egyptian,” and protest Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plan to strip public unions of their collective bargaining rights.

Wisconsin faces a budget shortfall of $3.6 billion by 2013 and Walker believes that if he can revoke unions’ rights to collectively bargain for health care plans or pensions, he can close that gap.

But Walker’s actions don’t show a man driven by deficits. Wisconsin teacher salaries have fallen 6.8 percent from 1998 to 2008, once adjusted for inflation, and union membership in Wisconsin declined from 456,000 in 2000 to 355,000 in 2010. Wisconsin, like many states, faces budget shortfalls caused by anemic tax revenues collected from a weak economy — not from ballooning government spending.

Although curtailing public employee benefits to reflect tax revenues makes economic sense, breaking up the unions that bargained for them seems to go a step too far.

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Many media outlets have sensed Walker’s ulterior motives and have been framing this political battle as just that — Republicans attempting to crush liberal voting blocks as we approach the 2012 election.

Walker’s plan is simple. If he can revoke public unions’ collective bargaining rights, he can then revoke automatic payment of workers’ dues to union treasuries. Republican Governors in Ohio, Indiana, and New Jersey have taken similar measures.

Shrinking those treasuries and reducing union memberships will make it harder for Democrats and their allies to communicate directly with workers. Destroy the unions, and the GOP will have much better chances going up against an increasingly impregnable Obama in 2012.

But framing the attack on public unions as a precursor to the presidential election, though it makes an absorbing story, misses the larger implications of what Republican governors have on their dockets.

Before announcing his plan to deny collective bargaining rights and reduce public worker compensation, Walker pushed through more than $117 million in tax cuts for businesses.

True, Walker did not create Wisconsin’s debt, but he has contributed to it, and is now asking public unions to bear the burden.

According to the Miami Herald, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed a budget that cuts $4.8 billion in education funding and gives a $1.5 billion tax break to businesses.

According to the Arizona Republic, the Republican Governor in Arizona proposed a bill which would kick 280,000 people off Medicaid. Then he signed into law $538 million in business tax credits.

Rick Snyder, the Governor of Michigan, asked for $180 million in concessions from the state’s schools after announcing $1.8 billion in business tax cuts, according to the Associated Press.

This, frankly, looks like far more than a campaign strategy. It’s a full-throated push to spur job growth by indulging the business community. Walker and his gubernatorial colleagues are doing all they can to lower unemployment. Their press releases are littered with promises to keep their states competitive in a global economy.

But their strategy amounts to little more than making corporate tax rates as low as those in Bangladesh. Ed Kilgore of the New Republic calls it the “smokestack-chasing” model of growth in which states “subsidize businesses in order to attract capital from elsewhere and avoid its flight to even more benighted locales.”

I am not willing to forgo funding for our schools or health care for our poor as a way to cajole businesses that would just as soon move their operations offshore. Nor am I interested in dismantling the unions that distinguish us from labor markets abroad.

Job growth should not come at the cost of regressing back to the Gilded Age. Eliminating workers’ protections and stifling welfare programs are not the only ways to create jobs, nor is exempting businesses from paying the taxes that everyone else must.

According to the Joint Senate Committee on Taxation, corporations contributed to just 6.6 percent of all the taxes collected in the U.S in 2009. Forty-three percent came from employment taxes, and 44 percent came from individual Americans.

How we have come to discuss the greed of public unions without first considering the massive wealth curdling in the bank accounts of the top 0.1 percent of Americans is beyond me.

The Democratic and Republican parties both need to cleanse themselves of the influence of wealthy interests and address the problems of vast financial power in private hands.

Let’s stop the infighting between those who make $20,000 and those who make $70,000 and turn our attention to the one percent of Americans who make more than $27 million each year — before their bonuses.