I will admit to being a late entry here. Much of the excellent writing from many Kossacks have mirrored my own thoughts, hopes and frustrations. Most of it has been better-written than anything I could dash off. I mostly lurk, anyway.
Also, I have been reluctant to talk about my problems, especially since the earthquake in Japan. Now, there's some people with problems which make mine look microscopic by comparison.
However, the main reason for not putting my thoughts down is, frankly, exhaustion. For about a month now, I get home from work only to roll into bed. I haven't been this tired after work since boot camp in the Marines. I've been to only three protests.
The strains are also making me sick. I'm going to have to move into a new house - the rent's gotten too expensive for me to afford it anymore, and Lady Black Brant had a badly broken wing some time back. It's hard for her to fly, let alone work.
But Lady Black Brant is worried about me.
You see, I work for the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds (better known as ETF). I deal directly with public employees all over the Badger State and their families; mailing out forms, taking requests for this or that, clarifying all the annoying little rules and regulations, handling problems, smacking down rumors and gossip, and so forth.
What Scott Walker and his Republican mooks have accomplished in just two months has made my job harder by an order of magnitude, along with everybody else in the Department from the Secretary on down. The so-called "Budget Repair Bill" has accomplished their objectives admirably. It has instilled a sense of insecurity and economic stress in nearly every part of the state. In some cases, it's spilled over into panic.
Two of the biggest responsibilities ETF manages are health insurance and retirement benefits. These are precisely the areas which the Public Employee Decimation and Union-Busting Act (its real name, in its effects) have made more expensive. This has the inevitable effect of putting all public employees under economic stress (in fact, the poorer the employee, the less they will see on their net pay). For the average public employee, this is like taking a 15 percent pay cut.
Of course, what's worse is the unilateral, toxic and illegal move to effectively neuter the public employee unions. This ensures that further cuts in pay or benefits cannot be blocked by collective bargaining. Contracts made become meaningless, as a shift in political winds can destroy them like any other empty political promise. No organized method of collective grievance is possible. No strikes or sick-outs are allowed - we can be fired for cause for missing more than three work days without the consent of management. Those retaining their rights see themselves in the gunsights next. Walker tried to exempt the police and firefighter unions - but they can see the writing on the wall. Employee benefits will become increasingly arbitrary and capricious, at the whims of those elect.
The results can speak for themselves. At ETF, February and March are fairly busy months to begin with. Schoolteachers tend to retire in June when their contracts are up - the employers usually put a March or April deadline for them to sign a contract for the next year. We usually get a lot of procrastinators right around this time of year.
For just the first four days of March 2011, however, we've taken almost as many retirement requests as we did in ALL of March of last year. February was almost as bad. For the first quarter alone, which isn't even over yet, the number is nearly double what it has been in any previous year. Walker may have neatly accomplished his goal of decimating the public sector in Wisconsin by stealth.
What's worse is that it's had a cascade effect. ETF isn't an especially big department, and because most of our funding does not come directly from tax dollars, we tend to be ignored during budget time (except when enough retirees complain to their state senators and Assembly reps). However, we always give people the option to meet somebody from ETF in a small-group setting or in person, especially when they're retiring. It's not a requirement, but it's a common legend among employees that they have to sign their retirement application papers in front of an ETF employee. Some people insist on it.
We can't do that anymore. We've had to adopt more impersonal methods to handle the flood of requests for appointments. We've increased the size of our group appointments, shifted resources, and almost begged people to use our website instead. But when you've got a Corrections officer who isn't internet savvy and prefers face-to-face contact, you can't just tell him to use the website.
I've had people call me in tears, from effectively being forced to retire before their time, because their school district will pull part of their health insurance benefits after retirement if they don't. They love their jobs, but have to protect what they can. State workers can bank their sick leave hours to convert them into an account to pay for their health insurance after they retire, with a matching employer incentive after 15 years. Some can cover their health insurance for a decade or more after retirement. The state worker's program is still in effect, but no one knows if it will be around after June of 2012 - the governor wants a study, no doubt to find "cheaper alternatives". College professors with 40 years of experience at the UW are running for the doors as a result. The torrent of retirements will create a "brain drain" in Wisconsin - a sharp loss of experience and institutional knowledge that may be irreplaceable.
They - and we, to be honest - are also scared that ETF is going to be caught in the privatization wave that Walker will inevitably unleash. First he went after the people in the Commerce Department - making them apply all over again for their old jobs under his new "Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation". He'll probably go after Corrections next - adding them to the teeming payrolls of the Corrections Corporation of America, or some such - where they will join their fellow underpaid wardens for the new American prison labor camps.
We could be next in line after Corrections. He may first try to do where a few previous Wisconsin governors have failed - use the massive Trust Funds themselves (9th largest in the country in 2009, 30th in the world) as a piggy bank to smash to pay for his tax cuts for his wealthy cronies while claiming the budget is still in balance. Each time it's happened in the past, the courts have made them pay it back - with interest. That's no guarantee, though, that Walker won't be successful now. Yes, I'm becoming that cynical.
Failing that, though, he'll probably just turn ETF over into another 401(k) - never mind that the private entities we hire to help with the investments in the Wisconsin Retirement System are three times more expensive per work-hour than the public State of Wisconsin Investment Board, and that the returns from many 401(k)s are pathetically puny. He'll tell us we should be grateful for anything we have left.
Of course, other labor unions throughout the state will also find a blind eye watching from the Walker junta when fresh assaults on them also commence.
But efficiency and the human dignity of labor aren't really the goals of the Walker administration, are they? No, it's about the choosing the rich over us "under-worked, overpaid slobs" in public service and our impoverished, disabled, and/or elderly clientele. It's about how owning a business (or just being wealthy from Daddy) somehow makes one morally superior and above the law, or even paying taxes. It's about a refusal to compromise being mistaken for principled democratic action. It's about playing up piety with deliberately divisive "Culture War" legislation while undercutting the electorate's economic well-being with actions that would make Jesus reach for the Zantac. It's about turning out a generation of undereducated citizens to form the new proles of the 21st century techno-feudal society. It's about turning America into a one-party state.
Along with Republican governors everywhere now, it's all about control, power and money. It's about turning the depressed Upper Midwest into Ayn Rand Fantasyland, where every ordinary worker dangles by a thread.
Anyway, I'm going to play with my woozles, get some needed shopping done with Lady Black Brant, maybe catch a movie and try to forget (if only for a while) that Scott Walker and his ilk even exist. Tomorrow it's back to work. Miles to fly before I sleep.Updated by Black Brant at Sun Mar 13, 2011, 09:24:58 PM
Wow, recommended! Thanks to everyone!