Updated, 8:50 p.m.
Thousands of Wisconsin’s union workers and supporters crowded into the state capitol in Madison for a second day to protest a bill that would strip key collective-bargaining rights from public employees. The measure, introduced last Friday by new Republican Governor Scott Walker, would take away public-worker unions’ ability to negotiate pensions, working conditions and benefits. State and local workers would have to foot more of the cost for their pensions–around 5.8 %–and more than twice that percentage of their health-care costs. Nearly all public workers–the bill exempts police, firefighters and state troopers–would be able to bargain only for salary, and any wage increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index. (Raises beyond that capped figure would require a special referendum.) With Republicans now in control of the state legislature after November’s electoral victory, the measure is expected to pass as early as tomorrow. You can read the statehouse’s summary of the bill here.
There’s no question Wisconsin has a deficit problem. The state has a short-term budget shortfall of $137 million, and over the next two years the deficit balloons to more than $3.6 billion. Walker says the “budget repair bill” would save some $30 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and $300 million during the following two. “I’m just trying to balance my budget,” Walker told the New York Times. “To those who say why didn’t I negotiate on this? I don’t have anything to negotiate with. We don’t have anything to give. Like practically every other state in the country, we’re broke. And it’s time to pay up.” He says the measure will help avoid up to 6,000 layoffs.
The measure has infuriated the state’s 175,000 public-sector employees, who say they’re being scapegoated by a governor whose party has no love for unions.Other newly installed Republican governors, from Florida’s Rick Scott to Ohio’s John Kasich, have zeroed in on cutting state-employee rolls and rights as a way to close sagging budget gaps. But Walker’s plan, which guts entrenched rights, is perhaps the most dramatic. “It is up to us to fight for the right of workers to have a collective voice on the job,” said Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Phil Neuenfeldt. “This proposal is too extreme.”
[Update: In an interview with a Milwaukee TV station Wednesday afternoon, President Obama weighed in on the issue. “Making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions,” Obama said, according to quotes provided by the AFL-CIO. (A transcript is not yet available on the station’s website.) “It’s important not to vilify them or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees.”]
The plan touched off eye-catching protests.
Police estimated Tuesday’s crowd at 13,000, and reports have the demonstrations swelling today, buoyed by an infusion of supporters. Among the masses were some 40% of Madison’s teachers, who coordinated a collective sick day that forced the state to shutter its second-largest school system. The crowd gathered outside the governor’s door chanted for a recall vote, and as a marathon 17-hour public hearing stretched into the early morning hours Wednesday, some of the protesters unrolled sleeping bags in the capitol rotunda. Parallels to the recent popular uprising in Egypt were apparently irresistible; a website popped up comparing Walker to ousted Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, and Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson dubbed Walker “the cheesehead pharaoh of the Middle West.”
Some of the furor stemmed from reports that Walker threatened to call in the National Guard to tamp down protests, though as PolitiFact notes, those claims were misleading. In light of the backlash, Walker is meeting tonight with Republican lawmakers to explore potential changes to the bill, but so far he’s shown no signs of caving.