UPDATE 3/9/11 : Wisconsin's Senate has passed a bill that takes away workers rights to unionize. The Republicans removed some financial parts of the bill and by doing so, they did not need the minimum 20 senators needed for the vote. The protestors are furious and view this as an assault by the government on middle class families.
The political drama in Wisconsin has captured the attention of an entire nation with opinions divided on whether unions are good or bad for the country. It is symbolic that the standoff is taking place in Wisconsin - the state that was the first in the U.S to pass a law guaranteeing worker's rights exactly 100 years ago.
First, A Little Background..
Ever since independence, workers in the U.S have been trying to organize themselves into unions to demand better wages and working conditions. It was not until 1870 that Samuel Gompers, a charismatic, young man led a group of fellow workers in protest against their employer, a cigar making company. The company had reduced their wages thinking that the workers would not protest for fear of losing their jobs. But they were wrong.
Gompers fought for workers rights and won. He went on to start the AFL (American Federation of Labor) that organized industry workers into unions. It later grew into the organization, AFL-CIO that we know today.
Over the years, the AFL-CIO has become a major force in unionizing auto workers, teachers, police officers, postal workers and other government employees. Beyond wages and working conditions, the AFL-CIO negotiates workers compensation (wages and medical benefits if a worker is injured on the job), health insurance, pension benefits (amount people get after retirement), and more with the employers.
The AFL-CIO plays a prominent role in American politics as well - the organization spends millions of dollars on lobbying or influencing legislators to pass bills that are favorable to them.
Fast forward to Wisconsin
Wisconsin's state deficit stands at 3.5 million dollars. Scott Walker, the state's new Republican Governor has proposed cutting funding for schools and local government, as well as increasing the amount union employees pay towards their health and pension plans. But, he wants to go one step further and dismantle the unions and their bargaining power. The belief among many Republicans is that the unions have become very powerful and their demands are making many companies and the state bankrupt.
Democrats, however believe that unions are important and support the rights of the working class. To pass the bill, Wisconsin needs at least 20 lawmakers to be present in the Senate. The state has 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats after the last election. They need one more Democrat, but they are all in hiding! The Governor has threatened to lay off 1,500 state workers by April 1st if the Democrats don't return as well as fine them $100 for every day that they are missing.
Troubled times for Unions
Unions have been shrinking compared to the 1970s when 28% of the workers were union members -- now, it is only 11.9%. Some companies like Walmart discourage their workers from forming Unions while others have moved manufacturing overseas because of the high cost of labor in the U.S.
Unions in at least 10 other states face similar challenges where bills that would end or reduce their power are being debated. We are seeing history in the making as Wisconsin, the land of cheese and Super Bowl, may add one more title to itself -- the battleground for survival of America's Unions.