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Nation's Eyes Turn to Wisconsin Amid Struggle over Collective Bargaining

by Clay Barbour

MADISON, WI - The birthplace of Progressivism this week became the key battleground in a fight that has repercussions stretching from New York to California.

In this Feb. 18, 2011, file photo opponents to the Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers protest in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Stung by the wave of anti-union sentiment in Wisconsin and more than a dozen other states, organized labor is re-energizing as a political force and trying to take advantage of the growing backlash. They expect momentum from the protests to spill into the 2012 election cycle. (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File) As protests against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to severely curb collective bargaining rights for public employees continued for a fifth day at the state Capitol Friday, demonstrators were joined by union supporters from Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as national union leaders and civil rights advocate the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The political fight has captured the nation's attention, landing on nearly every major network and spurring dialogue about its relevance for the rest of the country. To many, Wisconsin represents the line in the sand for public employee unions, who find themselves under siege in several states. Losing ground here, they fear, will cost them everywhere.

"This is a coordinated effort by the Republican Party to destroy the labor movement in this country," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in town Friday for the largest day of rallies, estimated by Madison police at 35,000 to 40,000 people. "If Wisconsin passes this, there are at least another 12 to 15 states that will try it."

Republicans leaders who took office as part of the conservative wave the swept the nation in November are promising deep spending cuts and more fiscal discipline. Many are also fighting for major changes to labor relations. 

Union membership decline

The efforts come as organized labor reels from a steady loss of members in the private sector. The public sector, with about 7.6 million members, now accounts for the majority of workers on union rolls, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Making matters worse for unions, most states are wrestling with major budget problems. It has gotten so bad that even Democratic governors — usually friendly with labor — are targeting public employees and unions as ripe for cutbacks.

Lawmakers in Tennessee, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Nevada and California are considering severe cuts to public employees, including layoffs, pay freezes and increased donations to employee pension and benefit plans. Collective bargaining in each of those states is in danger.

In Ohio, where lawmakers face an estimated $8 billion budget gap, the Legislature debated a bill this week that would limit collective bargaining for about 400,000 public employees. Protestors have rallied at the statehouse in Columbus, but on a far smaller scale than in Madison.

Pieter Wykoff, who works for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said public employee contracts have gotten out of hand.

"They are an albatross around government's neck," he said. "What you are seeing is state governments across the country making a stand. Taxpayers are tired of subsidizing benefits they never get."

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing a $10 billion budget gap. He has vowed to balance his budget without tax increases. One of the key parts of his plan is to cut about $550 million by freezing public employee salaries and requiring them to pay a bigger share of their pensions and benefits coverage. He has threatened unions with as many as 9,800 layoffs if they can't agree on a deal.

"We are all in the same boat when it comes to public employees," said Morris Peters, Cuomo's budget spokesman. "It's just math. You can't run from that." 

Giving government tools it needs

Walker wants to remove nearly all collective bargaining rights for most of Wisconsin's 175,000 state and local government employees, allowing workers to negotiate only over salary. He has exempted most law enforcement, firefighters and Wisconsin State Patrol troopers from his proposal. 

By ending state employees' ability to negotiate for their pensions and insurance rates, the governor will be able to increase employee pension contributions to 5.8 percent of salary and more than double their health insurance contributions.

Currently most state employees pay nothing toward their pensions and a modest amount for their insurance. Walker said those increases alone would save the state $30 million this fiscal year and 10 times that much in future budgets. He said that would help him overcome the $137 million hole in the current budget, and eventually help the state make up the $3.6 billion shortfall projected for the next biennial budget.

Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell and Wisconsin State Employees Union Executive Director Marty Beil have both said the state's unions are willing to consider the governor's changes to their pension and benefits plans. But the unions remain dead set against his bid to end most collective bargaining rights.

In his office Friday, a raucous crowd just outside his window, Walker stood firm on his goal.

"I know full well the negative impact collective bargaining has on a county, city, town and school district officials to balance their budget," Walker said. "We're going to give local governments the tools they've been asking for, for decades."

That promise is the stuff of nightmares for union leaders. Organized labor is expected to spend a lot of money on fights in Wisconsin, as well as the other states where lawmakers have targeted labor.

And if Walker's bill goes through, as expected, Trumka promised a massive labor uprising in the state.

"We will be in the streets," he said.

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