Thousands protest anti-union bill in Wisconsin

Union supporters rally
Protestors to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers demonstrate Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis.

By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Thousands of teachers, prison guards and students descended on the Wisconsin Capitol for a second day Wednesday to fight a move to take union rights away from government workers in the state that first granted them more than a half-century ago.

The Statehouse filled with as many as 10,000 demonstrators who chanted, sang the national anthem and beat drums for hours. The noise level in the Rotunda rose to the level of a chainsaw, and many Madison teachers joined the protest by calling in sick in such numbers that the district had to cancel classes.

The new Republican governor, Scott Walker, is seeking passage of the nation's most aggressive anti-union proposal, which was moving swiftly through the GOP-led Legislature.

If adopted, it would mark a dramatic shift for Wisconsin, which passed a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959 and was the birthplace of the national union representing all non-federal public employees.

As protesters chanted "Recall Walker now!" outside the governor's office door, the governor insisted he has the votes to pass the measure, which he says is needed to help balance a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and avoid widespread layoffs.

Walker said he appreciated the concerns of protesters, but taxpayers "need to be heard as well." He said he would not do anything to "fundamentally undermine the principles" of the bill.

Wis. Gov. Scott Walker
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker holds up a flyer during a news conference Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., produced by a union from last November's election for reasons not to vote for Walker.

"We're at a point of crisis," the governor said.

A budget committee was expected to consider the proposal later Wednesday. At one point during the protests, Republicans said they intended to offer substantive changes, but they soon revealed that all the core elements would remain.

Senate Major Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the bill would be modified to include an extension of grievance procedures for employees who lose bargaining rights. Other changes were to be revealed before the committee vote.

The full Legislature could begin voting on it as early as Thursday.

As the bill appeared ready to advance, tensions rose in the Capitol. Police roamed the halls, restricted access to some rooms and stood watch outside the governor's office.

In addition to eliminating collective bargaining rights, the legislation would also make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage - increases that Walker calls "modest" compared to those in the private sector.

Wisconsin protests
Wisconsin Reps. Cory Mason, left, D-Racine, and Mark Pocan, D-Madison watch as state workers, union members and others protest on the steps of the state Capitol Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011, in Madison, Wis. The protest was called after Gov. Scott Walker proposed to end collective bargaining for most of the state and local employees.
AP Photo/Andy Manis

More than 13,000 protesters gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday for a 17-hour public hearing on the measure. Thousands more came Wednesday.

"I'm fighting for my home and my career," said Virginia Welle, a 30-year-old teacher at Chippewa Falls High School. She said she and her husband, who is also a teacher, each stand to lose $5,000 a year in higher pension and health care contributions.

Welle said she could never get that money back since the unions would be unable to bargain over benefits under Walker's plan.

The protests have been larger and more sustained than any in Madison in decades. Dozens of protesters spent the night in sleeping bags on the floor of the Rotunda. A noise monitor in the Rotunda registered 105 decibels at midday Wednesday - approximately the same volume as a power mower or chainsaw.

Beyond the Statehouse, more than 40 percent of the 2,600 union-covered teachers and school staff in Madison called in sick, forcing the superintendent to call off classes in the state's second-largest district. No other widespread sickouts were reported at any other school.

Prisons, which are staffed by unionized guards who would lose their bargaining rights under the plan, were operating without any unusual absences, according to a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.

Walker has said he would call out the National Guard to staff the prisons if necessary. A union leader for prison workers did not immediately return messages.

Scott Spector, a lobbyist for AFT-Wisconsin, which represents about 17,000 public employees, said the demonstrations were having an effect on lawmakers.

Union representatives were attempting to sway key moderates for a compromise, but Democrats said the bill would be tough to stop. Democrats lost the governor's office and control of the Legislature in the November midterm elections.

"The Legislature has pushed these employees off the cliff, but the Republicans have decided to jump with them," said Sen. Bob Jauch, one of 14 Democrats in the 33-member chamber.

While other states have proposed bills curtailing labor rights, Wisconsin's measure is the most aggressive anti-union move yet to solve state budget problems. It would end collective bargaining for state, county and local workers, except for police, firefighters and the state patrol.

Protesters targeted the budget committee's public hearing Tuesday to launch what Vos called a "citizen filibuster," which kept the meeting going until 3 a.m. Wednesday.

Two floors below the hearing, dozens of University of Wisconsin-Madison teaching assistants and students poured into the Capitol rotunda late Tuesday evening, putting down sleeping bags and blankets. Many were asleep on the floor when the hearing ended.

Wisconsin has long been a bastion for workers' rights. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was founded in 1936 in Madison.

But when voters elected Walker, an outspoken conservative, along with GOP majorities in both legislative chambers, it set the stage for a dramatic reversal of Wisconsin's labor history.

Under Walker's plan, state employees' share of pension and health care costs would go up by an average of 8 percent. The changes would save the state $30 million by June 30 and $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

Unions could still represent workers, but could not seek pay increases above those pegged to the Consumer Price Index unless approved by a public referendum. Unions also could not force employees to pay dues and would have to hold annual votes to stay organized.

In exchange for bearing more costs and losing bargaining leverage, public employees were promised no furloughs or layoffs. Walker has threatened to order layoffs of up to 6,000 state workers if the measure does not pass.

Wisconsin is one of about 30 states with collective bargaining laws covering state and local workers.

Walker has argued that the concessions are moderate compared with those suffered by many other Americans during the recession. Democratic opponents and union leaders say his real motive is to strike back at political opponents who have supported Democrats over the years.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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