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Wisconsin Protests Draw Thousands Of Workers Fighting For Key Union Rights

First Posted: 02/21/11 05:38 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:35 PM ET

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."


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