Obama Backs Wisconsin’s Runaway Senators, Decries ‘War on Unions’

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Photo: Mark Hirsch/Getty Images

President Obama voiced his support for Wisconsin's Democratic state senators, many of whom are holed up in a Best Western in Illinois to block a vote on an anti-union bill. The legislation, which Republican governor Scott Walker has positioned as a budget-saving measure, would do away with collective bargaining power for state employees and force workers to pay more for pensions and health insurance. (Democrats crossed state lines to prevent a quorum at the Republican-controlled state Senate; if they stayed in Wisconsin, police could have forced them to return.)

Obama had this to say, in an interview with a Milwaukee reporter at the White House:

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions. I think everybody's got to make some adjustments, but I think it's also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens."

Republican leaders, not surprisingly, are siding with Walker. In a statement invoking Obama's call for civility in budget talks, John Boehner said, "This is not the way you begin an 'adult conversation' in America about solutions to the fiscal challenges that are destroying jobs in our country. Rather than shouting down those in office who speak honestly about the challenges we face, the president and his advisers should lead."

Obama's support didn't end with an interview. According to the Washington Post, Organizing for America, the White House's "political machine," has been involved since Monday, making phone calls and getting the word out on Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail to build crowds of protesters at rallies. Before the walkout Thursday, Democratic state senator Lena Taylor changed her status update to "brb," which already picked up 300 "likes."

The throngs of populist supporters and social-media tools have both sides of the debate invoking Egypt in their defense. Former representative David Obey, a big name in Wisconsin politics, compared Walker to Mubarak before his ouster. "All I know is that last week, when people were asking where Mubarak was — whether he had gone to Sharm el-Sheikh or Paris — I was saying he was ensconced in the governor's mansion in Madison," Obey told TPM. Republican senator Paul Ryan played the Egypt card in his own way:

"[Walker is] basically saying, I want you public workers to pay half of what our private sector counterparts are, and he's getting, you know, riots. It's like Cairo has moved to Madison these days. It's just, all of this demonstration. It's fine, people should be able to express their way, but we've got to get this deficit and debt under control in Madison."

With Democratic Party officials organizing similar demonstrations to cut public worker benefits in Ohio and Indiana, and union activists predicting protests in Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, it looks like this is just the opening round of Republicans versus public-sector unions. But we do our political unrest a little differently in the U.S. of A. The revolution will be at Best Western.

Obama joins Wisconsin's budget battle, opposing Republican anti-union bill [WP]
Obey: Wisconsin Gov. Walker Is Channeling Mubarak [TPM]
Paul Ryan On Wisconsin Protests: 'It's Like Cairo Has Moved To Madison' [TPM]
Ohio, Other States Gear Up For Wisconsin-Like Fights Over Worker Rights [TPM]
Related: Wisconsin’s Democratic State Senators Are Hiding in a Best Western