Democratic Lawmakers Boycott Anti-Union Bill As Protests Escalate

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Shelly Moore, 37, has taught English and drama at Ellsworth High School, in a rural patch of northwest Wisconsin, for 13 years. Her base salary is $49,000. She’s unmarried and without kids, so in addition to her regular classes, she teaches AP literature, directs a fall musical and a spring play, and coaches the school speech team. Those extra duties – along with the fact that she’s nationally board certified—bumps her total compensation to about $56,000. Like others in Wisconsin and around the country, her district is beset by budget issues. Shortfalls finally forced the layoffs of 24 of the school’s 150 teachers earlier this year. On Jan. 5, she learned she would be one of them.

Moore is one of many thousands of public workers in Wisconsin with a vested interest in the mushrooming debate about a measure that would strip most of their collective-bargaining rights. The dispute over Governor Walker’s “budget-repair” bill has escalated sharply. After Republican-controlled state legislature teed up a Thursday vote, Democrats forestalled the bill’s certain passage by ditching work to deny the GOP a quorum. When the Senate convened this morning at the state capitol building in Madison, only Republicans were present. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a passel of Democrats has fled the state; police have been dispatched to corral the absentees and return them to the floor. One Republican called it an attempt to “shut down democracy.”

Thousands of protesters, who have camped out in the capitol rotunda and stormed the halls since Tuesday, are witness to a frenzied scene. Schools are again closed – in Madison, the epicenter of the fracas, but also in some other state districts as well. Sign-toting public workers are decrying Walker’s bill, which would take away negotiating rights on issues ranging from benefits to working conditions, tie salaries to the Consumer Price Index and force significant mandatory increases in public-employee pension and health-care contributions. Yesterday, President Obama called the bill an “assault on unions.” National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, whose group represents nearly 100,000 Wisconsin teachers, says that state workers are being scapegoated by a governor hostile to unions. “It’s a politically motivated attack,” he tells TIME. “It’s not about money and it’s not about a budget fix. It’s an attack on unions. [The bill’s supporters] want to silence their voice.”

Whether or not that’s true, it’s also about money. Wisconsin has a $137 million shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30, and a projected $3.6 billion deficit over the ensuing two years. Walker says his measure would save $30 million in the short term, and 10 times that other the next two years. The bill, which covers almost all state and local public workers – cops, firefighters and state troopers are exempted — would allow the state to sidestep some 6,000 layoffs, according to Walker. The governor, elected in November, offers a simple explanation for the bill’s necessity: “We’re broke.”

One of the ironies of the protests is where they’re happening. In 1959, Wisconsin was the first state to give public workers comprehensive collective-bargaining rights, and the governor’s bid to take most of them away has given rise to debates and demonstrations across the state. After work Wednesday, Moore traveled to the closest university, in Little Falls, where a hastily called meeting drew some 600 people. She says she’s amenable to sacrificing some of the benefits that make up for teachers’ comparatively lower salaries. What galls her is the notion that union employees are underworked, overcoddled and resistant to doing their part. “We recognize the state is in crisis,” she says. Her union has agreed to pay freezes, even as salaries skyrocketed across the state during flush times, and during the last two-year collective-bargaining cycle she took a small salary reduction (less than 1%). “We may not be well compensated but we’ve traded benefits for compensation,” she says. “We’re supposed to be leaders in our community, but our only way to have a voice is through collective bargaining.  Now that’s being taken away too.” Teachers, she says, are being told, “We don’t respect you, we don’t want your voice at the table.”

Some Republicans have expressed concerns about the measure, but none have indicated they will vote against it. The GOP has a 19-14 edge in the chamber, giving it a two-vote margin. While the Democratic boycott has infused the scene at the capitol with carnival overtones, the debate foreshadows a cascading series of discussions across the country, as GOP governors ushered into office with a mandate to mend broken deficits begin the painful blood-letting. Ohio will soon be voting on a similar measure, and other states will follow. What’s happening in Wisconsin will set the tone—which is one reason why both sides appear to be digging in their heels.