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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


"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.

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