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Vol. 75/No. 9      March 7, 2011

‘Workers have to
back each other’
(lead article)
MADISON, Wisconsin—Tens of thousands of union members and supporters, including a large number of students, rallied at the state capitol here February 19, to protest the union-busting "Budget Repair” bill proposed by Wisconsin Republican governor Scott Walker.

Upwards of 70,000 participated during the day, capping a full week of daily street protests. Some 40,000 turned out the day before.

The labor protests are in response to newly elected governor Walker’s proposals to take away public employees’ right to negotiate contracts with the government over benefits and working conditions. The governor's deficit reduction bill would only allow public workers' unions to ask for higher wages; at the same time future wage increases would be capped at the federal Consumer Price Index rate of inflation, unless otherwise specified by a voter referendum.  
8 percent cut in pay
State workers would have to pay more toward their pensions and health insurance, amounting to an 8 percent cut in pay. The bill also requires public workers to have a new union election every year, prohibits employer collection of union dues, and would end requirements that members of collective bargaining units pay dues. The police and firefighter associations would be exempt from the proposed bill.

The vote on Walker's proposals has been delayed because of a walkout by Democratic Party legislators who fear that the governor's measures go too far. The governor needs at least one of the 14 members of the Democratic caucus present for a quorum of the legislature.

Walker says “there is really no room to negotiate” because of the state’s $3.6 billion projected deficit in the upcoming two years. If the bill passes, Walker claims that there will be no layoffs for the 170,000 public workers in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s projected budget shortfall is far from the worst in the country. The 2011 state budget for Wisconsin is expected to be 12.8 percent in the red; in Minnesota it’s 24.5 percent; California, 29.3 percent; and Illinois, 44.9 percent. Unionists say that Walker's antilabor example could open the way to even harsher measures in other states where Democrats and Republicans are calling for greater "shared sacrifice."

Carl Adset, a power plant worker and member of Steamfitters Local 601, came with a group of coworkers. He told the Militant, “We’re here because they’re going to do the same thing to us. We have to support each other.”

Kasey Maxwell, a teacher from Richland Center, Wisconsin, said that ending collective bargaining rights for everything but wages would tear up union contracts, eliminate seniority, and allow school districts to arbitrarily fire teachers.

While many workers expressed their outrage at government demands that place the burden of the economic crisis on their backs, some trade union officials have been quick to agree that concessions are needed. “We have been clear—and I will restate this again today—money issues are off the table,” said Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC). “Public employees have agreed to Governor Walker’s pension and health-care concessions.”

Marty Beil, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 24, told reporters that workers will do their fair share to narrow Wisconsin’s budget gap.

Democratic Party lawmakers in Wisconsin have made clear they are in favor of the governor's proposals to substantially increase the health-care and pension costs of public workers.

The more than weeklong protests have drawn workers from many unions, including WEAC, AFSCME, American Federation of Teachers, Madison Teachers, Service Employees International Union, Teamsters, carpenters, painters, plumbers, and other union members, as well as workers in nonunion workplaces and family farmers.

Will McIntee, who came with three fellow classmates from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, said, “We came because Iowa is facing this also, the budget cuts have to stop, and workers should have the right to use their unions to defend themselves.”

On February 19, for the first time since the protests began, there was a counterprotest in support of the governor's bill organized by the tea party and a group called Americans for Prosperity. Their rally, held near the union demonstration, drew about 1,000 people. Among the signs the counterprotesters carried were “Workers support Walker,” “Stop Leeching and Start Teaching,” and “We All Make Sacrifices.”

There were some heated debates along the way, but no physical encounters. Some of the issues included: Aren’t public workers overpaid compared to workers in the private sector? Another was that workers should “sacrifice” in order to prevent layoffs and work toward improving the “business climate” by “keeping taxes down.”

On February 17 hundreds of University of Wisconsin students walked out of class in support of the protests.

A few days earlier 100 high school students from Stoughton High School in Madison walked out of classes. By the middle of the week Madison schools were closed because they did not have an adequate number of teachers to staff the classrooms. By Friday, February 18, the three biggest school districts in the state—Milwaukee, Janesville, and Madison—had closed their doors.

Thousands of students and union supporters have remained inside the capitol building around the clock since February 14. They have organized speakouts, information tables, and food distribution. When the legislature is in session they begin loudly chanting pro-union demands.

Union protests took place in Ohio this past week where Republican governor John Kasich has been seeking to take away collective bargaining rights from public unions. Thousands of union supporters protested in Indianapolis February 21 against a bill that would prohibit labor contracts that require all workers in a bargaining unit to pay union dues.

Betsy Farley, Laura Anderson, and Zena Jasper contributed to this article.
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Iowa unionists back rights of public workers
‘Appalled’ at gov’t assault, workers buy ‘Militant’
On the Picket Line
Illinois meeting discusses union fight for safety  
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