February 16, 2011
Madison, Wisc. — Thousands of state and local public service workers and teachers demonstrated Tuesday inside and outside the state Capitol here to oppose the threatened loss of collective bargaining rights and cuts to retirement and health benefits.
Standing outside the snow-encircled Capitol, holding protest signs aloft, an energized crowd cheered loudly as AFSCME International Pres. Gerald W. McEntee launched a verbal attack loud enough for lawmakers inside to hear: “We are not going to be quiet when politicians try to ram through a bill that would deny us our rights,” he declared. “We are not going to be silent when politicians tell us that silence is the only option and that negotiations are a thing of the past!”
Inside the Capitol, legislators heard workers testify until late into the night against a Draconian bill that would repeal years of established, hard-won labor rights for nearly all state public service workers, except local police and fire department officers and the state highway patrol. Gov. Scott Walker (R) unveiled the measure last Friday, and the Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to act on the plan as soon as Thursday, February 24.
The irony of braving the cold at the state capitol to preserve workers’ rights just days after the end of the Mubarak reign in Egypt was not lost on many in attendance.
“Depriving workers of their voice is never a smart way to go, but it’s really tone-deaf when Americans are cheering democracy overseas and then seeing it stifled within their own borders,” noted one participant.
The so-called “Budget Repair Bill” would limit collective bargaining for most state and local public workers, allowing them to negotiate over wages only. Nearly 200,000 union members – including home health care workers and University of Wisconsin faculty and academic staff who only recently won those rights – would be affected.
To further undermine the collective strength of public workers, the proposal would let employees avoid having to pay their fair share of union expenses, and make it more difficult for unions to collect dues. Also, new contracts would have to be negotiated every year, and collective bargaining units would have to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union.
“I think it’s absolutely essential we stop this now because taking away our bargaining rights kills not just the public sector – it will eventually kill the private sector too,” says Brett Kohlhepp, a retired street department worker for the city of Eau Clair and a member of AFSCME Retiree Chapter 7 (Council 40). “Eventually," he adds, "it will just kill the unions altogether, which I think is what the governor really wants to do.”
Benefits also come under attack in the legislation. State employees would be required to pay at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums – more than double for most workers – and also contribute far more to their pensions (an estimated 5.8 percent) than they do now. The changes could cost the average state worker literally thousands of dollars annually. Similar cuts would affect local workers and teachers.
“This bill would basically destroy the middle class,” says Robert Knudsen, an electronics technician for the city of Oshkosh and a member of AFSCME Local 796 (Council 40). “We’re not looking for money, we’re looking to maintain our benefit package.”
The governor’s proposals are particularly galling to AFSCME members, since AFSCME was born in Wisconsin in 1932. AFSCME’s state councils and locals, together with the state AFL-CIO and other unions, quickly mobilized this past weekend to oppose the governor’s plan.
Their counter-attack includes television and radio ads, press conferences, and thousands of phone calls to lawmakers. On Friday, 100 union members picketed outside the Appleton Post Crescent newspaper while Gov. Walker was inside trying to sell his plan to editors.
Union members gathered outside the governor’s mansion on Sunday to express their opposition to his plans. More than 8,000 people signed an online petition. High school students even walked out of class in solidarity with the workers.
See photos from Tuesday's actions below: