Politicians Chart Course in Race to the Bottom
By Jim Cavanaugh, SCFL President
Well, the wild ride has already begun and Scott Walker hasn’t even been sworn in yet.
Playing on anti-Madison, anti-Milwaukee bias in other parts of the state, one of Walker’s campaign promises was to kill the proposed Madison-Milwaukee high speed rail project, even though work had already begun on it. Walker’s excuse was that this $810 million gift from the federal government might require an annual subsidy of a measly $750,000 to $7.5 million. It’s kind of like Wisconsin refusing construction of I-94 back in the 1950s and 1960s because of the potential snowplowing and repair bills in future years.
After his election, there was a big push from numerous sources to convince Walker to change his mind and, in some cases, to provide him cover to change his mind. The State AFL-CIO, along with Citizen Action, an inner city religious coalition, and Voces de la Frontera, held rallies at the site of the Talgo factory. Talgo is the Spanish company that located in a Milwaukee brownfield to build the cars for the high speed rail. The City of Madison and Dane County suggested they might be willing to kick in some money if the train indeed required an operating subsidy; and the City of Milwaukee was considering the same idea. The Sierra Club held
successful rallies around the state. Hundreds turned out in support of the train at joint MnDOT-WisDOT hearings. Various connected individuals attempted backdoor negotiations. In Madison, (see photo right) a joint labor-business-environmentalists-political leaders news conference called on Walker to reconsider his position.
Jobs Go Elsewhere
Two days after the Madison news conference and four days prior to a planned Milwaukee City Council resolution on behalf of the train, the federal government announced that Wisconsin’s train money, because of the governor-elect’s position, would be withdrawn and redistributed to other states, mainly California and Florida. In the typical cave-at-any-cost fashion of the Obama
Administration, this action was taken even before Walker was inaugurated, thereby relieving him of the responsibility of actually acting to kill the train, and also came with an agreement that
Wisconsin would not be liable for any of the money already spent on the project.
One of Walker’s other campaign promises was to create 250,000 jobs in Wisconsin. Even before entering office, he has already broken that promise by killing the over 14,000 family-supporting jobs the train was estimated to bring.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel estimated the train project would employ over 4700 construction workers during the first couple years. And those jobs are desperately needed because the construction industry continues at a 25-30% unemployment rate during this recession. The Talgo plant, which now says it will relocate elsewhere, closer to where its train cars will be put to use, projected employment of 125 manufacturing jobs. Another 50-100 jobs would have been required to run the trains, maintain the tracks, and staff the stations. Then there’s thousands of jobs in the spin off businesses that won’t be added. All told, the Sierra Club’s economists figured these jobs would generate $173 million in added Wisconsin income.
For decades Wisconsin taxpayers have complained that they send a lot more money to Washington, D.C., than they get back. Now they’ve elected a governor who apparently is saying “just kidding; give the money to California; we don’t really want it.” The Los Angeles Times concluded its editorial on all this with “ Thanks a billion, cheeseheads.”
I’m not sure how to best describe Walker in this situation. A couple clichés leap to mind—“penny wise and pound foolish” and “looking a gift horse in the mouth.” Or, maybe he’s just “vindictive” or “stupid.”
Right to Work (for Less)
And speaking of “vindictive,” Walker’s allies in the new Legislature are already preparing legislation to punish unions and lower the living standards of Wisconsin workers.
We expect a Paycheck Deception Act, which would place onerous conditions on union political education efforts, conditions that do not apply to corporations engaged in political education activities.
We also expect attacks on Wisconsin’s Prevailing Wage law. Prevailing Wage laws require government construction projects to pay workers an area’s prevalent wage for each type of construction work— plumbers, carpenters, electricians, etc. These laws were first implemented during the last Great Depression in order to prevent unscrupulous out-of-area contractors from underbidding local firms by paying imported workers well below local standards. For decades these laws have helped assure that an area’s tax dollars go to local construction workers and have also prevented shoddy work by fly-by-night operators.
Because they think it might save a couple bucks and because they apparently think Wisconsin construction workers deserve Mississippi wages and benefits, some of our new, right wing Legislators have our Prevailing Wage law in the cross hairs. In addition, many in our new Legislature, like their right wing comrades in several other states that saw massive changes in their Legislatures in the recent elections, are threatening to pass a so-called Right to Work (for Less) law. These laws, prevalent mainly in southern states, make union security clauses in union contracts illegal.
What this would amount to in practice would be similar to going to Woodman’s, filling a shopping cart, and then heading to the parking lot instead of the checkout line. In other words, you’d get all the wages, benefits, and protections of a union contract, but paying dues would be optional.
I don’t want to bore you with all statistics on this (if you’re into numbers, call me and I’ll gladly send them to you), but suffice to say that workers—all workers, not just union members—in Wisconsin have significantly higher wages, lower poverty rates, greater likelihood of good health insurance and pensions than do workers in states with Right to Work (for Less) laws.
These, and other measures being considered by the new Legislature, would, if passed, lower the standard of living of Wisconsin workers. Couple that with Wisconsin being cut out of the Midwest high speed train system, and we’re looking at something akin to plunking a piece of the Delta down into the heart of the Midwest.
Maybe we should pass legislation renaming the state. Wisconsippi??