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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Issue of the Week: Women Lose In Walker's Budget

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When a governor and lieutenant governor are the first Republican gubernatorial ticket to be endorsed by the extremist fringe of the right-to-life movement that believes birth control causes abortions, you know that their administration is not going to be kind to women.

And Gov. Scott Walker's new budget bills—and bills introduced by Republicans in the state Legislature—definitely harm women.

Stripping collective bargaining rights from public employees will unfairly impact women, who comprise more than half of the membership of the largest public employee and health care workers' union, AFSCME. Not only did Walker exempt unions that are predominantly male—police, firefighters and state troopers—but he's busting unions that are predominantly female, such as teachers, nurses, librarians and clerical staff. Family day care providers—the vast majority of whom are women—will lose their ability to bargain altogether.

The result, of course, is more economic vulnerability for women—especially black women—who have joined unions to achieve economic stability and equality. While women still earn only 77 cents to their male peers' dollar, female union members earn higher wages than non-represented women. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings of full-time unionized women over the age of 25 is $851, while the median weekly earnings for their non-union female peers is $659.

The advantages of joining a union, of course, go beyond wages and benefits. Patty Yunk, director of public policy at AFSCME District Council 48, said that union protections have allowed women to be fully equal in the workplace, even in nontraditional occupations. "When you're unionized, you're equalized," Yunk said. Unions protect women against sexual harassment, unfair job assignments and pay discrimination. While women will still have some workplace protections, filing a complaint and coming to a resolution is more difficult when you're on your own, without union representation.

Walker and his Republican allies will do harm to women in other ways as well. Walker's budget strips out state funding for family planning services for lower-income women, even though the state only chips in 10% to the federal government's 90%. That the program ultimately saves the state hundreds of millions of dollars by preventing unintended pregnancies seems to have been lost on Walker.

Walker has also proposed to end the requirement that insurance policies that cover prescriptions include contraceptives. Once again, women will lose vital health and economic protections unfairly.

Walker's budget repair bill—approved by the Republican-controlled state Legislature—would also cut $500 million from Medicaid programs and allow his politically appointed secretary of the Department of Health Services to make sweeping changes to the programs without public oversight. Again, who is more likely to rely on programs such as BadgerCare, SeniorCare and Family Care? Women and children, of course.

Walker has also proposed to give Wisconsin Works (W-2) participants a $20 per month pay cut, even though their wages have been frozen since 1997, and he's attempting to decrease the pay of child-care providers in the Wisconsin Shares program.

The state Legislature is joining in Walker's attack on women. Earlier this month, the 19 Senate Republicans passed a bill that would overturn Milwaukee's Paid Sick Leave Ordinance, which was approved by 69% of voters in a 2008 referendum but hasn't been implemented. Again, low-wage working women—especially those who are the head of the household—would benefit most from paid sick days.

But Republicans have voted to overturn this workplace protection. And who led the charge? State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), who once was seen as a moderate Republican on women's issues. No wonder why voters in her district are so fired up about recalling her.

Republicans are also trying to gut Wisconsin's Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), in part by prohibiting some part-time workers from using the act to take time off to care for an ill relative. Once again, women stand to lose more, since they are more likely to work a part-time job than men.

State Rep. Sandy Pasch (D-Whitefish Bay) said that the proposed Republican legislation would create haves and have-nots. "The have-nots will be women and children," Pasch said, "while the haves will be men and big business."

Hero of the Week

River Revitalization Foundation

The stated mission of the River Revitalization Foundation (RRF), a nonprofit urban rivers land trust established by concerned local citizens, is "to establish a parkway for public access, walkways, recreation and education, bordering the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers; to use the rivers to revitalize surrounding neighborhoods; and to improve water quality."

The group works with area youth in educational and volunteer activities, regularly donning boots and gloves to plant native trees along riverbanks and remove invasive species. The RRF is one of six finalists for a $30,000 grant from MillerCoors. The grant would be used to create a rain garden, improve the boat landing, install paths and plant trees at the 2.8-acre Wheelhouse site on the Milwaukee River. To help the RRF in its efforts to improve our local waterways, visit www.rivernetwork.org and fill out the short online ballot.

Readers wishing to volunteer their time either in the offices or outside getting their hands in the earth are directed to call 414-271-8000 or visit the group's website at www.milwaukeerrf.org.