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Wisconson public employee debate puts thousands on the streets

By James Kelleher
February 20, 2011

Protesters gather down State Street in Madison, Wis. after a a rally outside the Wisconsin State Capitol on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011. A few dozen police officers stood between supporters of GOP Gov. Scott Walker on the muddy east lawn of the Capitol and the much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators who surrounded them. The protest was peaceful as both sides exchanged chants of “Pass the bill! Pass the bill!” and “Kill the bill! Kill the bill!” (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, Steve Apps)

Supporters of legislation to reduce public employee union bargaining power and benefits in Wisconsin were far outnumbered by opponents on Saturday, as the two sides shouted competing slogans but did not clash.

Tens of thousands have demonstrated this week against Republican Governor Scott Walker‘s proposed legislation, which supporters say is needed to control spending and opponents contend would break the back of state worker unions.

Wisconsin is the flashpoint for a U.S. struggle over efforts to roll back pay, benefits and bargaining rights of government workers. If the majority Republicans prevail, other states could be emboldened to take on the powerful unions.

Both sides drew thousands to the state capital Madison on Saturday — officials put the combined total at 55,000 — but no more than 5,000 of those appeared to be there for the rally backed by Tea Party groups, the first appearance by members of the conservative, limited-government movement this week.

The bill’s opponents marched counter-clockwise around the state Capitol, encircling the legislation’s supporters and chanting “kill the bill.”

The supporters countered with “Recall them all,” referring to Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois to deny Republicans the quorum needed to consider the proposal.

In addition to sharply curtailing union bargaining power, the Republican legislation would make state workers contribute more to health insurance and pensions.

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“I’ve been working in a factory for 26 years. We pay 15 percent for the cost of our healthcare. The state workers get Cadillac insurance and pensions. They have no God-given right to collective bargaining,” said bill supporter Anthony Thelen, 46, who works in a nonunion factory outside of Milwaukee.

Although there had been fears of a fight, the atmosphere was generally peaceful and friendly, with organizers on both sides urging followers to be courteous.

Margaret Derr, a high school math teacher and union member, said she didn’t dislike the governor personally.

“I’m just opposed to the bill. I have no problem contributing more to my healthcare and pension. I understand about the deficit, but some of the proposals are just about union busting.”

Like Derr, union and Democratic leaders say they are willing to compromise on benefits if Republicans back off on their bid to weaken collective bargaining, but so far Walker and his legislative allies have stood firm.

State Assemblyman and Minority Leader Peter Barca told Reuters, however, that he has not given up on a compromise.

“My hope is before Tuesday enough Republicans will recognize this proposal is over-reaching and the support for this proposal wanes. I’ve been told some Republicans will reconsider,” he said.

Tuesday is when the State Assembly is due to take up the proposals again. Barca said he did not know when the absent Democratic state senators might return, allowing that body to consider the measure. Senator Jon Erpenbach said Friday that the senators were prepared to be away for weeks.

Governor Walker estimates the state budget deficit for the rest of this fiscal year at $137 million and for the next two fiscal years under its biannual budget at $3.3 billion.

He wants state workers to increase contributions to pensions to 5.8 percent of salary and double contributions to health insurance premiums to 12.6 percent.

The proposal would limit collective bargaining to the issue of wages and cap increases to the rate of inflation, with a voter referendum needed for bigger increases.

It also would end government collection of union dues, allow workers to opt out of unions, and require unions to hold recertification votes every year. Walker said the alternative is to lay off more than 10,000 public employees.

U.S. state and local governments are struggling to balance budgets after the recession decimated their finances. In addition to Wisconsin, other states like Texas, Arizona and Ohio are relying mainly on cuts in spending to balance the books, while Minnesota and Illinois are raising taxes.

Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, called the polemical environment in Madison a “raging against the coming of the night” stemming from years of fiscal irresponsibility.

He said the conflict will spread. “As bad as this is at the Wisconsin State level, it is far worse in about 20 states,” Sabato told Reuters.

“In cases like this it always depends on how the governor handles it,” he said. “If you look around the country there are a whole bunch of these types of governors and I would be shocked something like this doesn’t happen in Ohio, New Jersey, and Florida.”

Despite such serious aspects of the issues, Wisconsonites on both sides did not let their differences get in the way of civility on Saturday.

When the opposing rallies ended, many retired to the numerous bars in the Capitol’s shadow, like The Old Fashioned Tavern & Restaurant.

Zog Begolli, a 23-year-old bill opponent, met four bill supporters there when they helped him get a drink at the crowded bar. “They allowed me to get closer so I could order,” he said.

“Beer is something we can all agree on,” said Randy Otto, 59, from Lake Mills, one of those who let Begolli squeeze in.

Copyright © 2011 Reuters

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