Wisconsin remains divided over union actions

Sign of support
A sign of support hangs in a window over Second Street in downtown Hudson, Wisconsin Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Wisconsin lawmakers have given final approval to a proposal by Gov. Scott Walker to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers. Walker said he will sign the legislation as soon as possible.

Wisconsin residents are reacting to the fast-paced political action in Madison. We visited several border communities Thursday to sample opinion.


In St. Croix County, just east of the Twin Cities metro area, most voters supported Republicans in last November's election and supported Scott Walker's bid for governor.

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Hudson is a little town on the St. Croix River, with gingerbread houses and boats wrapped up in bright blue plastic for the winter. It's also home to citizens with varied opinions.

At Bert's Coffee Cafe on the old-fashioned main street, retired machinist Bob Baker feels like celebrating.

"Happy days are here again -- we've got a politician that's got some backbone," he said.

Baker was a union man all his life, but he said he thinks taxpayers should have something to say about public employee pensions -- because taxes are paying most of the cost.

Baker's friend Don Schueller agrees. He said people shouldn't be surprised when a politician like Gov. Walker tries to carry out the platform he ran on. But that doesn't mean Schueller likes everything about it.

"Happy days are here again -- we've got a politician that's got some backbone."

"As far as the pension and the health care, making them pay what everybody else does, yes," said Schueller. "But when it comes to bargaining rights for a union -- people have to understand that if you didn't have unions bargaining, we'd all be working for two bucks an hour."

At the next table, retired teacher Kathy Roberts said the Republican governor and legislators are out to get unions.

"To take the collective bargaining out of it, which has nothing to do with the budget, is a sham, a total sham," she said.

Roberts said it wasn't necessary to push the budget through so quickly, and she's glad that 14 Democratic senators left the state to delay a vote, because it gave citizens more time to notice what was happening.

Doug Torgerson grew up during World War II, and said he remembers how people then were willing to make sacrifices for the common good. Torgerson said he thinks the present problems require sacrifices too, and Gov. Walker recognizes that.

"When he gets through, there's going to be a lot of people hurting," said Torgerson. "Not only those who've lost jobs -- and I can sympathize with them -- but it just has to be people like myself, a retired person. Our standard of living is probably going to be reduced."

Maybe that kind of resignation comes with age. At the Hudson Bagel and Coffee Company, Richard Larsen is frustrated with what the Legislature did Wednesday night.

"It wasn't a bipartisan discussion, it was forced through," said Larsen. "The fact that the Democrats were sitting out to try to force their agenda and not allow discussions to be had is frustrating to me. It's just disappointing to me that the system didn't work."

Recall efforts are underway for 14 Wisconsin politicians, including Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, who represents this district. That's appropriate, according to state worker Neal Minogue, who said the Republican Legislature took democracy away from Wisconsin citizens.

"I'm going to fully support the recall of any Republican senators who were at the table," said Minogue. "I'm very disappointed in our government as a whole at this time."


Reaction in Superior, Wis., has been predictably on the side of the public labor unions who oppose the bill that strips unions of most of their collective bargaining rights. Superior and Douglas County lean to the Democratic left; with Democrats representing this region in both the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate.

Protestors were out again Thursday, walking in front of the Douglas County courthouse. On this street, there have been demonstrations every day for weeks.

Bong Bridge union protest
Todd Erickson (left) and Sandy Reinolt (right), both of Duluth, Minn., protest at the center of the Bong Bridge between Superior, Wisc. and Duluth Thursday afternoon to protest Wisc. Governor Scott Walker's attempt to end the right of state employees to collectively bargain.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

A few blocks away, at Superior Senior High School, school psychologist Dana Parask said he was surprised at the quick action of Wisconsin lawmakers over the past day.

Parask called the Senate's vote, with no Democrats present, the "nuclear option."

"We were very surprised that they took this option due to the fact that it is so, so politically unpopular," he said.

Parask is a 37-year employee. He's also executive secretary of the Superior Federation of Teachers, and he said he's retiring after this year because of the cuts projected in his take-home pay.

He estimates that teachers' pay in Superior will drop by more than $2 million as a result of the Legislature's actions, and that change will be felt by local businesses.

On the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior, students side mostly with the unions. Ashley Goeres of Cloquet, Minn., has watched as something of an outsider. She said she thinks Walker's proposal is wrong, but he's not the only one at fault.

"It was wrong for Democrats to run away from their voting duty. I mean, I didn't elect them, but enough people around here did elect them for a purpose," said Goeres.

Joel Sipress teaches American history on campus. He's on the American Federation of Teachers bargaining committee, and he predicts a backlash against Republicans.

"We've lost one battle. We have, for the time being, lost our collective bargaining rights," said Sipress. "But this was never just about the collective bargaining rights for public employees. This is about the vision and future of Wisconsin."

Daro Crandall, chair of the Republican Party of Douglas County, said there was nothing underhanded in Wednesday's Republican Senate vote.

"I think it's about time they actually took the action," Crandall. "The Legislature can giveth; the Legislature can taketh away."


News of the Legislature's vote in Madison polarized residents across Wisconsin -- even those in the most rural areas of the state.

Trempealeau County sits just between La Crosse and Eau Claire. At the county courthouse, Bobbie Guthrie started her day checking in with union workers in various offices. She's a maintenance worker here and president of the courthouse union.

Jason Schank
Jason Schank is a fourth-generation dairy farmer near Arcadia, Wis. As a farmer who has struggled to balance his own budget, Schank says he supports Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget repair bill.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Guthrie described the Senate vote as a "demoralizing legislative outmaneuver." One-third of county employees are union members. None of those she spoke with Thursday wanted to be identified by MPR out of fear they'd lose their job. For Guthrie, that fear represents an all-time low for workers.

"The voice of the people just doesn't matter anymore," said Guthrie. "They can just pretty much shove anything at you that they want to, and there's going to be a way that they can do it, and they're going to take advantage of those ways. So our voice is pretty much not going to be heard anymore."

Still, Guthrie and other county employees know not everyone in town shares their opinion. In fact, Trempealeau County was evenly split in the last election and opinions on this budget debate have fallen largely along those party lines. Now, the roughly 28,000 residents in this sparsely populated area remain engaged in the debate raging in Madison.

A couple blocks from the courthouse, at the S-and-M Bar and Grill, Rod Severson sat for breakfast with some of his friends. Severson, 49, is a construction worker and says taxpayers should have a say in the benefits of public employees.

"Do I back what the governor is doing? Yeah," said Severson. "They should have seen this thing coming. If it would have been me, I would rather have my job than not have it at all."

Severson said the 14 Democratic senators who fled the state to try to block a vote on the governor's budget repair bill walked out on their responsibility.

Bobbi Guthrie
Bobbi Guthrie is a maintenance worker at the Trempealeau County Courthouse. She also serves as the president of the courthouse union and says morale among workers is at an all-time low.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

"This could have been resolved a lot different than it ended up," said Severson. "Both parties should have met. Not run from a problem. I'm not picking on Democrats, but they shouldn't have run away. They should have taken a stand and should have been right there with protestors."

The debate was also on the minds of some farmers in this part of the state.

Jason Schank has been following the news from his dairy farm near Arcadia. He's a fourth-generation dairy farmer who supported the budget repair bill since Gov. Scott Walker released it last month. Schank said something had to break the stalemate.

"Yes, you want fairness in negotiations. And I guess I'm disappointed that it had to come to that. But something had to be done to get this process in motion again," he said.

As a farmer, Schank acknowledges he benefits from some of the most generous government subsidies available in the U.S. But he said what's happening is simply a tactic to attempt to balance the state's budget.

"There's some places where the government could make cuts," Schank said. "I'm not going to say that [farm] subsidies aren't one of them, but we need to eliminate some of this deficit and spending for our future."

But for union workers in rural Wisconsin like Bobbie Guthrie, the Legislature's unprecedented action has prompted action. She vows to step up recall efforts against several Wisconsin senators and will travel to Madison to rally with other workers this weekend.