If there was any doubt that Wisconsin's heated battle over union rights would go national, today's rally dispelled it. "This is a defining moment," state Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told the pro-union crowd. "New Mexico is next in line!"
Egolf wasn't the only one who heralded the coming of a labor skirmish. Hundreds of rally-goers (like Barbara Hatfield of Taos, the "lobbyist for the working poor" in the photo above) cheered public officials who accused anti-union Republicans of fomenting a class war.
"To hell with them!" state Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, who sponsored New Mexico's collective bargaining bill, shouted (and, in the process, sounded an awful lot like a bona fide union boss).
"Freedom is breaking out all over the world!" Santa Fe Mayor David Coss announced, drawing parallels between popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya with the battle playing out in Wisconsin--and soon, he predicted, New Mexico.
Let's pause for a QUICK TUTORIAL on the Wisconsin situation...
How it started: On Feb. 11, Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker, proposed a series of changes to public employee unions in the state, a longtime union hub, as a means of fixing Wisconsin's $137 million deficit. Walker's plan calls for increasing the amount public employees contribute to their health care and retirement plans and confining their collective bargaining rights to the issue of wages (as opposed to other perks like vacation time). Union supporters cried foul, saying Walker's proposal represented an unfair infringement on their rights. That led to extended protests--complete with a rock concert and a pizza delivery from Cairo--and even prompted Democratic legislators to flee the state to avoid a vote on the bill.
Why it matters: First and foremost, there's a lot of money--and where money goes, so too do politics--at stake. Walker has argued that generous deals with unions have squeezed the budget; the other side maintains that state budgets aren't in the red because they pay slightly more than they might to teachers and blue-collar workers. But there's more than piddling state budgets at stake; this is a partisan fight, too.
Labor has been a historical voting base for Democrats--and one which some say Walker would like to nullify. But OpenSecrets.org, which has a whole page dedicated to the intersection of political contributions by labor and business lobbies, shows that labor's contribution to Dems is relatively minor compared to that of the corporate sector. On the other side, union supporters have pointed out their big-money opposition in industry barons Charles and David Koch.
In the end, then, the union fight seems more ideological than fiscal. As the Economist reports, Walker's bid to make unions reassert their existence on an annual basis "is likely to cost money, rather than save it." Fox News, incidentally, has a good examination of the political debate around "right to work" (or, as the AFL-CIO likes to refer to it, "right to work less") states.
What it all means for New Mexico: In a state where approximately one-quarter of all workers are public employees, any attempt to thwart unions will be met with some hostility, as today's rally made clear. Still, some elements of Walker's proposal will soon come before the New Mexico Legislature, such as Republican state Sen. Steven Neville's SB 268, which would increase the contributions public employees make to their own retirement plans and HB 449, which repeals collective bargaining rights for child care providers. (On the other side, HB 101 purports to make collective bargaining talks public.)
Those relatively innocuous measures don't mean there won't be a fight, though. Gov. Martinez, who is on record in favor of making New Mexico a "right to work state"--in other words, barring unions from requiring union membership--could institute a Walker-esque "power play" as part of the state's current budget talks.
Or, as Egolf put it today, "We're going to have a big fight here, guys."
PHOTOS from today's rally:
Ramón Mondragón, a former federal employee who kept shouting about how the US Supreme Court was keeping the people down, tells SFR he's incensed about the 2010 Citizens United decision because "they make corporations people." Aptly summarized, Mr. Mondragón.
Happy people join unions.
One speaker told the crowd that union-busting "makes Jesus sad."
Best part: AFSCME was handing out free sandwiches and bottled water at today's rally. Turns out there is such a thing as a free lunch.
These guys are not sad--at least not baby-Jesus-sad. They must have just eaten some free lunch.