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Wisconsin Protests Draw Thousands Of Workers Fighting For Key Union Rights

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MADISON, Wis. -- On Friday, February 11, at the same hour that the world watched the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resign his post, the newly appointed Republican Governor of Wisconsin quietly launched a ferocious attack on public sector unions -- and the very notion of organized labor in America.

For nearly fifty years unions have sought to safeguard and advance their rights through a process known as collective bargaining, which is the most powerful tool labor has for peacefully resolving disputes and ensuring workers a voice in negotiations on everything from fair wages to safety conditions and sick leave.

The bill championed by Wisconsin's governor takes dead aim at this process by stripping most state workers of many of their collective bargaining rights. Union leaders have responded uproariously, claiming that the bill effectively guts public unions of their most critical asset in a state that pioneered many of the fundamental fights for worker's rights. Political chaos has ensued on both sides. State Democrats fled the state last week to prevent a vote on the legislation, while many Republican governors -- some who already have similar bills on the table -- watch carefully to see, if the bill succeeds, how they might pass anti-union legislature in their own states.

(Check out a gallery of HuffPost readers' photos from the Wisconsin protests here.)

President Obama called the bill "an assault on unions." On the ground in Wisconsin, the growing crowd of protesters portray their actions as part of a once-in-a generation struggle to shape the dynamic that determines what voice workers will have in the workplace. They feel the eyes of the world upon them. Last Friday as millions swarmed the streets of Egypt in a "Day of Victory" rally, a young man posted a picture on his Facebook page showing a sign reading "EGYPT Supports Wisconsin One World One Pain."

In many statehouses in America, there are heated debates about how to handle mounting deficits and difficult budget cuts. Governor Walker's so-called "Budget Repair Bill" purports to address Wisconsin's $137 million budget shortfall. In addition to removing most collective bargaining rights, Walker's proposal would double the amount state employees pay for health insurance and increase contributions to their pension funds. Republican's say Walker's plan would save the state $30 million over the next three months and $300 million over the next two years. Proponents of the bill say that it is a pragmatic approach to difficult fiscal times.

"I'm just trying to balance my budget," Mr. 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."

But labor historians, economists and policy makers say that addressing Wisconsin's deficit is not the full motive of the bill. As they see it, what's really happening is that Walker is seizing on an illusory budget crisis and using it as a battering ram to break public unions.

"It's a symbolically huge stab to see workers rights and mechanisms for conciliation being undone," said labor historian Josh Freeman. "I think [Walker's Bill] is about ideology, generally. There aren't that many worker institutions left in the United States. It's a real effort to take them down. And the budget is an occasion for this."

Indeed, in a conference call with reporters last week, leaders at two of Wisconsin's largest state workers unions -- the Wisconsin Education Association Council and AFSCME -- said that they would concede all of Walker's fiscal demands, if they could keep the right to collective bargaining.

"We want to say loud and clear: it is not about those concessions," said Mary Bell, president of WEAC. "For my members, it's about retaining a voice in their professions."

Walker has rejected this offer. "Doesn't work," he told USA Today. "And the reason, having been a local government official, is we've got 72 counties, 424 school districts, over a thousand municipalities. And like every other state, or nearly every other state across the country, our budget is going to have cuts in aids to local governments."

But union leaders insist that there is always something to bargain over, even if it is only the ability to bargain itself.

"I think what people need to see in this is that it's not just an attack on public service unions. It's really a concerted attack by powerful interests that really want to see working class people be brought down," said Rick Badger, the executive director of AFSCME's Wisconsin 40 council. "Walker claims there's nothing to bargain with. The message we need to get out there is that this could not be further from the truth."

As the crowd builds day by day, the tens of thousands who have showed up to protest Walker's bill claim their actions are much more than a battle over increased health insurance premiums and a cut to their pensions. Those who have gathered for days in increasing numbers in front of the Capitol -- in some cases, through the night, camped out inside the Capitol on sleeping bags and cardboard -- characterize themselves as figures at the heart of the struggle for the future of the American worker.

Other states are closely watching Wisconsin's example.

In Ohio, Republican Senator Shannon Jones proposed a bill which also seeks to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees and curtail binding arbitration rules for local governments. Last month, Ohio governor John Kasich said that if employees strike, "they should be fired." In response, last week thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Ohio statehouse.

Indiana is facing protests over a proposed Right to Work bill. Indiana has also proposed a bill which would limit collective bargaining rights for teachers. Union leaders and democrats are preparing for extended fights in both Ohio and Indiana.

"I think other states will be emboldened," says Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor relations at Cornell. "If [Walker's bill] passes there will be a ripple effect and states like Ohio and Indiana will move quickly. And other states will start to think that this is a viable option."

SOLIDARITY AT THE CAPITOL

In Wisconsin, the demonstrations have been peaceful. Yet, Walker has attempted to pit law enforcement against protesters since his first announcement of the bill, which was accompanied by the suggestion that he might call in the National Guard to quell protesters. He told reporters at the press conference that the Guard was "prepared" for "whatever the governor, their commander-in-chief, might call for."

Additionally, in a move that might have further divided Wisconsin state workers, Walker exempted police and firefighters from his bill. Many observed that cops and firefighters tend to vote Republican and this might explain their exclusion. But far from turning on the crowd, Wisconsin police have acted as behind-the-scenes advocates for those opposing the bill in negotiations with state administrators.

The protests have been peaceful, with very few arrests. But on Friday night, according to sources inside the Wisconsin Police Department, the state's Department of Administration wanted to clear the Capitol building where people were camped out, singing, praying, and sharing stories late into the night. Those police assigned to the capitol refused to comply, arguing that as there was absolutely nothing going on and there was no need to act. After a "healthy discussion" (as one police officer put it), the discussion was dropped and those inside the Capitol stayed put.

No group has been more loved at the protests in Madison than the cops and firefighters. Everywhere they go, they are trailed by shouts of thanks and cheers. Day after day, police officers, in their civvies, gathered by the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Memorial carrying signs pledging solidarity.

"This is not about the money," said George Silverwood, a silver-haired retiree with a bright white smile straight out of central casting. He was with the police force for 32 years, deeply involved with union negotiations, and said he can't believe what Walker is proposing.

"I sat at that table and arrived at a contract and saw how well that worked, year after year," Silverwood said. "Walker keeps saying, people shouldn't be shocked. Well, we're shocked. And we're angry."

Jamie Leonard, 35, has been a Wisconsin firefighter for 13 years. He lives a 2-hour drive from Wisconsin, but drove down to join the protests last week and plans to go again this week.

"I went to show support," Leonard said simply. "We need to show that, even if we weren't included, we support the public worker unions. We're with them."

"[Collective bargaining] has been in this state for a long time, and not having that, there are a lot of unknowns," Leonard said. "When you lose something, it's like a nice comfortable blanket. You take that away, and you think: are we just going to be left out in the cold? How will we be treated from here on out? Benefits are one thing but rights are something else. And that's what we're fighting about."

Many police are suspicious of Walker's real motives. Scott Favour, a Madison cop for 19 years exclaimed heatedly, "Governor Walker is not telling the whole story on what he's trying to accomplish. It's about breaking unions."

"You can't bribe the cops," Favour said, greeted with grins and high fives from fellow policemen.

There has been extensive debate about why Walker exempted police and firefighters from his bill. In a press conference, Walker simply said that the state has always treated local police and firefighters differently than other public workers.

Rumors swirled with ulterior motives. Was it payback for campaign support? Others felt Walker was too scared to go after cops and firefighters. Some thought, he was trying to bribe them. It's still not entirely clear why he carved them out of the bill.

The largest state police and fire unions in Wisconsin supported Walker's opponent in the elections, although the Milwaukee police and fire fighters unions endorsed Walker.

The Governor did not respond to several requests for comment.

Observers of the state's political climate say the support police and firefighters have shown in the protests over the last week is unprecedented in recent memory.

"Law enforcement officers go into the profession to be helpful to people," said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association. "So they see this as an opportunity to continue doing that. I think they're worried about a whole class of people they work with who will be deprived of their rights, and the second thing is: We could be next."

The uncertainty about why the groups were exempted from the bill leaves a gaping unknown: Could their unions be the next on the chopping block?

"The reality is that he's trying to divide those within Wisconsin's various labor groups," Palmer said. "He wants to divide Wisconsin's house of labor so he exempts the two most popular groups and tries to let everyone else fend for themselves. I think that's the political reality."

Veteran groups were outraged by Walker's reference to the National Guard.

In the past, the Guard has stepped in to staff prisons when prison employees went on strike. But, in his comments, the governor did not specify what the Guard might be used for. And the history of the National Guard intervening in union protests in Wisconsin is brutal.

"It's hard to imagine why that had to be raised except to purposely stoke a fire," said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University. "It's a painful history that Wisconsin has had in that respect and to raise the specter of calling in the National Guard seems totally unwarranted in this case."

The last time Wisconsin called in the National Guard was in 1886. The Guard, then called the State Militia were brought in to break a rally of Milwaukee workers advocating an 8-hour work day. The militia fired into a crowd of unarmed picketers; it's estimated that 5 to 7 workers were killed.

WHICH STATE COULD BE NEXT?

It's far from an accident that this struggle is being played out in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin workers have a deep and longstanding history with unions. It is the birthplace of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the largest unions in the United states. Wisconsin fought the first fights to get unemployment insurance, worker's compensation, and public sector collective bargaining.

Jenny Sallmann a 37-year-old Nurse at the UW hospital thought of her father, a Wisconsin teamster, often while she was out protesting last week.

"He taught me never to cross a picket line," she said. "And he's pretty conservative. He believes that--" she paused for a several breaths. "Well, I can't talk for him, but he was in a good union and it helped him have a good paying job. He didn't have a college education, he didn't have a ton of money but he supported us by driving a truck and I saw that growing up."

On Friday and Saturday, the normally pristine interior of the Capitol was practically wallpapered with signs which place the protests in the context of a struggle for fundamental rights. "Worker Rights are Human Rights," "Egypt = 18 days, Wisconsin = ??" and "No! Not In My Wisconsin."

One woman held a sign reading ""My father stood her here in 1956 I stand here in 2011 in his place for his honor." Collective bargaining for public sector workers was first passed in Wisconsin in 1958, after years of protests and negotiations.

There are nearly three hundred thousand public workers in Wisconsin. On the streets, protesters talked of revolution. At night, union leaders gathered at the nearby Concourse hotel to strategize while others swarmed the statehouse, beating drums, and reading statements about how the bill would effect their lives. Last week, protesters read to gathered assembly members late into the night. When the assembly closed, and the members went home Friday night, they read to each other.

Walker's bill does allow collective bargaining on one issue -- workers would be to negotiate over wages up to the Consumer Price Index. Labor historians and economists view this as little more than an empty gesture.

"You're not allowed to negotiate for pension and benefit, you can't negotiate beyond the rate of inflation for wages," said Laura Dresser, a labor economist at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, "So workers know: They are stuck, even if economy gets better. Even if the state has money again, they are stuck."

Proponents of the bill say that taking away collective bargaining rights is crucial to maintaining a balanced budget in the future. Walker claims that collective bargaining has "stood in the way of local governments and school districts being able to balance their budget" and maintains that his bill is "modest."

But labor economists point to labor's long history of collaborating with states in times of fiscal trouble.

"The principle of collective bargaining is not that unionized people always get more," says Rebecca Givan. "The principle is that everything gets negotiated. Even if there's only a small amount of money on the table, how it's distributed gets negotiated not imposed."

State workers are quick to point out that they had already faced mandated furlough days and they are fully prepared for more pay and benefit cuts.

"Teachers all over the state have made concessions on their bargaining," Dresser continued. "We see hard times going forward. But what he's doing, what's duplicitous, is that he's using the budget stress to take on the infrastructure of collective bargaining and worker's voice. And so that's where we have to stand up."

Critics of the bill point to Walker's significant ties with the Koch brothers, two conservative titans of industry who are waging a war against the Obama administration. The brothers were Walker's second-biggest campaign contributor, and have long taken a "very antagonistic view toward public-sector unions," Mother Jones reports.

Editors Note: This piece originally cited reporting from Talking Points Memo which was inaccurate. Although Walker did pass tax cuts after taking office, TPM reported that these cuts were significant contributions to Wisconsin's current deficit. According to Politifact, the tax cuts Walker passed will cost the state a projected $140 million in tax revenue, but not until the next two year budget.

Meanwhile, the share of corporate tax revenue funding the state government has fallen by half since 1981 and, according to Wisconsin Department of Revenue, two-thirds of corporations pay no taxes.

"I'm not saying they don't have real budget issues," Freeman said, "But Wisconsin is not Nevada or California. And there are all kinds of ways to address the deficit, including cutting labor costs. What's interesting here is that after initially resisting it, the unions have actually agreed to all the cuts."

As for what the future holds for Wisconsin workers, if the bill should pass, Freeman points out that there are some indications of what might be ahead. This is the first time that collective bargaining has ever been taken away from a state, but 20 states never negotiated for it.

"This is not a new situation," Freeman said. "Unlike a lot of aspects of the law, labor law is really varied. You could argue that this is the further southernization of northern society, because in much of the south this is already the case. So look there and you'll see what you get."

On Monday, as the protests enter their second week, Wisconsin is frozen in a standoff. Last Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers fled the state to block a quorum and prevent the bill from passing. The Governor has the votes to pass the bill, but while the 14 Senate Democrats remain in undisclosed locations in Illinois, the legislature cannot move forward.

Sen. Spencer Coggs (D-Milwaukee) said Democrats were prepared to stay away "as long as it takes."

AN IMPENDING BRAIN DRAIN

One unintended consequence of Walker's proposal is a significant brain drain, as the best and the brightest in Wisconsin's public sector either leave the state or retire.

Elizabeth Zahn, 52, is a Pediatric therapist and union member of 25 years. She has lived in Madison her entire life. She never thought she would contemplate leaving the state, until last week.

As a health care professional and union member, Zahn is concerned for herself, but also for those patients who are supported by state salaries who may no longer be able to afford her services.

After 25 years, she is scared about what the workplace will be like without a union to support her.

"I feel insecure without a union behind me. like there's no one watching my back. I've often been Laissez-faire with my involvement with contract bargaining thinking, oh there's someone watching out for me," Zach says, clenching her hands and looking down. "But now I'll have to figure this all out on my own and I don't know how that's going to work."

Zahn has a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin in physical therapy and an excellent professional track record. She views Walker's bill as a slap in the face.

"There's no appreciation for me and what I can do," Zahn says. "And I'm going to move someplace where I can be appreciated."

Workers expressed a variety of reasons for leaving Wisconsin. The budget cuts are a factor, but many would stick it out if they felt that they still had a place at the bargaining table and hope for a more affluent future.

Matthew James Enright, 28, is a school teacher in Lancaster, Wisconsin, about 85 miles west of Madison. His wife, Jo Nelson, is a mathematics graduate student at the University of Wisconsin and member of the Teacher's Assistants Union. They moved to Wisconsin for Nelson's graduate program, but are considering relocating if the protests are unsuccessful.

The couple is rattled by Walker's exclamations that they are the "haves" in the state economy. Enright makes around $35,000 a year, and Nelson makes $13,000. They are burdened with student debt from college, and between the two of them barely scrape by.

"We have put off buying a dresser for a year and a half," Enright said, "And our dresser is falling apart! I'm okay with hand-me-down furniture," he paused. "I have a really good degree from a very respected program and it's every month we end up arguing about something with money."

And yet, when matters turned to collective bargaining, the couple became dramatically more heated, as though the financial burdens of life slipped away in the face of a greater need.

"It's the taking away my seat at the table," Enright said angrily. "That's what really bothers me."

"Even if the economy is to recover we'll never regain what we've lost here," Nelson chimed in.

Enright went on, "I don't see how the school will even really be able to afford to replace me, and other people like me who leave. And I'm pretty good at my job," he laughed. "I'm hard to replace."

Nelson is worried the bill will decimate the University as the best students and professors reach out to other universities. But early retirement is a sharp concern in Wisconsin as well.

"The more immediate problem," Rebecca Givan said, "is the rush to retirement. Because if people are worried about their pension being cut, they're already putting in their retirement requests now. So that's going to be a huge rush of all the most experienced workers putting in their retirement requests now."

But many are not calling it quits just yet.

Dianna James, an Affiliate Processing Technician at ASFCME 40, and member of the private sector union FSSU said that she was planning on retiring, but when Walker made his announcement, reconsidered her plans for the future.

"It's in my blood now," James said. "I'll be out there if it takes all year. My husband says: 'You're not retiring, are you?' I said, 'Oh I'm not retiring, I'm just starting a new fight.'"

"I just can't fathom--" James paused for a long moment, considering Walker's proposal to do away with collective bargaining. "I can fathom what they feel: and that's anger. Can I blame them? No. Because I feel the same emotion for them."

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