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Damon Silvers: Governor of Wisconsin tries to eliminate basic union rights for public sector workers in Wisconsin

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And in Wisconsin, the governor has decided that public sector unions are too strong and he’s going to do what he can to (what he says) reduce the costs in public services. Now joining us to talk about class struggle in Wisconsin is Damon Silvers. Damon is the special–is the director of policy at the AFL-CIO. You’re also, I think, called a special counsel there. So, first of all, for people that aren’t following the story, what’s going on in Wisconsin?

DAMON SILVERS, DIRECTOR OF POLICY, AFL-CIO: Alright. The governor of Wisconsin has asked the Republican majorities in the legislature to pass a law that says that no–that with the exception of police and firefighters, no public employee in the state of Wisconsin–state employee, city employee, county employee–can form a union that will be allowed to negotiate with the government over any subject other than wages, so no negotiations about pensions or health care, no negotiations about the way that workers manage their issues of fair treatment.

JAY: Like seniority rights [inaudible]

SILVERS: Seniority rights. And nothing. The only thing that could be negotiated would be wages, and no wage increases over cost-of-living increases in the general economy without a vote of the legislature. There are some other provisions in the bill that effectively deprive, with the exception of police and fire, public employees in Wisconsin of the human right to form a union and bargain collectively.

JAY: Now, so far this is all in the public sector?


JAY: Tens of thousands of people have been demonstrating on behalf of the public sector workers, and of course public sector workers themselves. If the governor goes ahead and the state legislature does pass this legislation, how does the labor movement, in Wisconsin and nationally, respond?

SILVERS: Well, I don’t–it’s too early to predict that. I can tell you that if you turned on a TV in Madison or Milwaukee or any of the communities in Wisconsin, you would see lists of school closings as though it was snow day. There were thousands of schoolchildren on the grounds of the Capitol yesterday and again today with their teachers. Some of the high school students, I believe, were in the rotunda; I think a couple of thousand high school students were in the rotunda attempting to shut down business in the legislature. Because this is such a fundamental human rights question that’s been raised by the governor of Wisconsin, it’s very unclear what exactly the–you know, where exactly things will go. Polling shows that about 75 percent or so of the population of Wisconsin believes that public sector workers ought to have the right to form a union and bargain like private sector workers do. And it’s very important in these kinds of situations to maintain broad public unity. And I think the labor movement and the workers in–state workers in Wisconsin, the municipal workers in Wisconsin, workers of all–private sector workers who understand that, in the words of the American–very ancient idea in the America labor movement that an injury to one is an injury to all. I think we all understand that everyone needs to stand together here. At the same time, you know, what options are left to people when they’re being basically told that the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights may give you the right to form a union, and [inaudible] and the ILO’s core labor standards may give you the right to form a union, and we may have nice words in the First Amendment, but in the state of Wisconsin those things don’t matter? What options will people have?

JAY: Will the AFL-CIO ask private sector workers in Wisconsin to join?

SILVERS: Well, they’re–we’ve asked them. They are joining.

JAY: No, I don’t mean join the protests; I mean in terms of strikes, in terms of other kinds of actions.

SILVERS: I think those kinds of questions are being talked about in Wisconsin by workers in Wisconsin. And the AFL-CIO is going to lend every possible aid to workers in Wisconsin. The entire resources of the labor movement in the United States are at their disposal. And we are–and I think workers around the world are watching.

JAY: What happened that would cause the governor to do such a thing?

SILVERS: Well, Wisconsin, like a number of other states, has a budget shortfall caused by the recession and high unemployment. There’s a coordinated effort among Republican politicians and wealthy funders like the Koch brothers to ensure that rather than do anything that might actually tax wealthy people, that this should be used as the excuse to break unions across the public sector in the United States. And that’s kind of what we’re seeing playing out in Wisconsin.

JAY: So in other words, instead of trying to deal with this budget deficit through higher taxation of [the] wealthy, you make the issue public sector workers are overpaid and lazy and you go after that.

SILVERS: That’s right, although in fact the data shows that public sector workers are not paid particularly more than private sector workers. The mix of cash compensation and benefits is different in the public sector than in the private sector. But the overall compensation packages in most states are–for most public workers are comparable to private sector workers with the same skillset [inaudible]

JAY: Yeah. And I think we’ve–if you haven’t seen, we did a story on this comparison, which we’ll reference down here below the player.

SILVERS: Right. But the real agenda here, of course, is the notion that in America–the real agenda of the governor in Wisconsin, his funders and political allies, is that in America we can no longer afford to be a middle-class country. So if anybody has been successful at maintaining some economic security from their family, the role of government is to take it away from them.

JAY: Well, this kind of goes back to another interview we did, which is about, you know, what do you fight for and which narrative dominates. So in the stimulus package that–of a year ago [inaudible] a lot of that money went to states and municipalities in one form or another. But it seems President Obama in this budget buys the austerity narrative more. So he says, well, we’re–instead of fighting for another package for states and municipalities, he’s out there saying, yes, now’s the time to fight the deficit.

SILVERS: There is relief for states and municipalities in this budget.

JAY: But at a scale that’s going to prevent–.

SILVERS: But not at a scale that’s going to be sufficient to solve the problem.

JAY: So what would solve the problem? What would you like to see?

SILVERS: Well, I think there’s a whole range of measures that need to be undertaken. The first thing is to understand what the problem is. Alright? The problem at the state level, right, is not the problem that state workers have human rights. That’s not the problem. Alright? The problem is also not that somehow state workers are radically overpaid in a country where overwhelmingly the benefits of economic growth have flowed to the top 1 percent, top 5 percent of our income structure. State workers are not in the top 1 or 5 percent of our income structure. That’s not where the sort of inequities in our society really lie. The reasons for the–and secondly, many of the things that you read in the newspapers about state budgets simply aren’t true. The most dramatic one is is that most state–most public pension funds are–you know, given where we are in capital market cycles, are not in that bad trouble. There are a couple that are, but most are not. What is the problem? What is the problem is that we have systematically undertaxed wealthy Americans. Right? We’ve allowed tax loopholes to open up. We’ve hollowed out our manufacturing sector and thereby gutted our middle-class jobs base, and thus gutted our tax base for many of our states, both in terms of income taxes and property taxes, and that we’ve asked states to bear these burdens and economic crises that the states aren’t built to bear, right, that state–that the legal structures of states aren’t built to bear. Now, what kinds of solutions are necessary to that? Well, fair taxation would be a good start. Secondly, a really robust effort to get our economy moving again on a national level and to solve the jobs crisis. When people work, they pay taxes and they don’t need benefits. Right? They don’t need unemployment benefits, they don’t need Medicaid when they get jobs. Right? These are the general direction that solutions need to go. But today, as you and I are speaking, right, that’s not what’s on the table. What’s on the table is whether or not the fundamental human right, right, to organize collectively, to act together in the workplace, is going to be respected in the United States or not. And in particular, will it be respected in Wisconsin? Alright? And there are tens of thousands of people in front of the State Capitol in Wisconsin waiting to see whether or not the issues that played out in Egypt are going to play out in a manner that respects human rights in Madison. That is what is going on today.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

SILVERS: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Damon A. Silvers is an Associate General Counsel for the AFL-CIO. Mr. Silvers’ responsibilities include corporate governance, pension and general business law issues. Mr. Silvers led the AFL-CIO legal team that won severance payments for laid off Enron and WorldCom workers. He has also testified before numerous Congressional committees on issues arising out of the collapse of Enron. Mr. Silvers is also Counsel to the Chairman of ULLICO Inc., where he has assisted a new management team address a business crisis arising out of serious misconduct by prior management.
Mr. Silvers is a member of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board Standing Advisory Group, the Financial Accounting Standards Board User Advisory Council, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Corporate Governance Task Force, the New York Stock Exchange’s Stock Options Voting Task Force and was a member of the Advisory Committee on Analyst Independence to the House Capital Markets Subcommittee. He is also a member of the American Bar Association’s Subcommittee on International Corporate Governance.