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Wisconsin Seeks to Gut Unions to Rein In Costs

Wisconsin is poised to strip collective bargaining rights from most of the state's 175,000 public employees in the boldest step by a new Republican governor and Legislature to solve budget problems by confronting organized labor.

Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker
Jewel Samad | AFP | Getty Images
Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker

The state Senate and Assembly are expected to vote as soon as Thursday on Gov. Scott Walker's plan to end collective bargaining for all state, county and local workers except for police, firefighters and the state patrol.

More than 10,000 public employees staged demonstrations at the state Capitol Tuesday to protest the measure, banging on drums and screaming "Save our state!" and "Kill the bill!" A parade of witnesses railed against the bill and testified to lawmakers for hours about the impact on middle-class families; hundreds still waited to speak as the clock ticked toward midnight.

Madison school district officials canceled Wednesday classes because teachers planned stay away to protest the bill. As of late Tuesday, 40 percent of the district's 2,600-member teacher bargaining unit had called in sick and the number was expected to increase.

Opponents of proposal essentially were mounting a "citizen filibuster" in hopes of delaying a committee vote on the bill, said Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester. But legislative leaders said earlier that Walker has enough support in both chambers to approve the measure, which he said is necessary to address a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit.

"We're broke and we don't want to lay off almost 20,000 people," said Senate President Mike Ellis, a Republican, who added, "They've got the votes to pass it."

Union representatives were attempting to sway key moderates for a compromise but Democrats said the bill would be tough to stop.

"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.

New Republican governors and legislatures in other states have proposed cutting back on public employee costs to reduce budget shortfalls, but Wisconsin's move appears to be the earliest and most extensive.

Wisconsin was the first state to enact a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959 and also is the birthplace of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the national union representing all non-federal public employees, which was founded in 1936 in Madison.

But the election of Walker, an outspoken conservative, last November and the GOP's seizing of control of both legislative chambers set the stage for a dramatic reversal of Wisconsin's strong labor history.

Johanna Lanner-Cusin, 29, a history teacher who came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a graduate degree, told lawmakers Tuesday that Walker's proposal would hurt the school's ability to recruit quality instructors and graduate students.

'A Society That's Moving Backwards'

"It's hard to go into a classroom and teach people about a society that's moving backwards," she said. "I'd rather not do that.

Jodie Coston | Photodisc | Getty Images

Walker's plan would make workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. State employees' 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.

Unions could still represent workers, but could not seek pay increases above 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. Local police, firefighters and state troopers would retain their collective bargaining rights.

In exchange for bearing more costs and losing 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 did not pass.

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

Walker has argued that the public employee concessions are modest considering what private sector workers have suffered during the recession.

But Democratic opponents and union leaders said Walker's real motive was to strike back at political opponents who have supported Democrats over the years.

Protesting workers arrived in buses from across the state and poured into the Capitol, where they rallied under the watch of a large security force. Protesters chanted, waved signs and occasionally applauded testimony broadcast from the legislative hearing on monitors set up in the Rotunda.

"We're focusing on being heard as a people, as one, all the unions," said Michael Hyde, a sergeant at the prison in Waupun. "Government is supposed to be our representative."

Kathy Lusiak, 59, a computer lab aide at Prairie Lane Elementary School in Kenosha, said the bill would cost her about a third of her $21,000-per-year salary. "I'm totally shocked. I never thought it would be this drastic," said Lusiak, who joined the protest. "It's very much a nightmare scenario."

The public employee bill is the latest that Walker has pushed through the GOP-controlled Legislature in rapid order since taking office in January. He's also signed into law tax cuts for businesses that relocate to Wisconsin and those that create jobs and sweeping lawsuit reform. To achieve additional budget savings, he is seeking authority to make changes in the Medicaid program, sell state power plants and restructure existing debt to save about $165 million.

Democrats, who lost the governor's office and control of the Legislature in the November midterm elections, have been powerless to stop to the juggernaut. Republicans hold a five vote margin in the Senate and a 57-38-1 edge in the Assembly.

The threat of layoffs helped many lawmakers reluctant to compromise.

"Anybody who promises you that there's an easier way to close this gap is trying to sell you something," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in an open letter to Wisconsin workers.

Governors in a number of other states, including Ohio, Indiana, Nevada and Tennessee, have called for forcing concessions from public employee unions but no similar measures have moved to final action.

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