Thousands of public workers marched in Wisconsin's capital before a legislative vote on Wednesday on whether to slash public worker pensions and curb collective bargaining rights of unions. It's a scene that may be played out in many states struggling with budget deficits.
"There are thousands of people here—20,000 at least!" said Scott Favour, a Madison, Wisc., police officer, describing the crowd that surged around Gov. Scott Walker's office Wednesday.
"It's all ages, all kinds of public employees--firefighters in full turn-out gear," Favour said. "There's a lot of solidarity here."
Officer Favour, himself a protester, was taking the day off to express his opposition to the governor's so-called budget repair bill, which would close a state shortfall of some $3.6 billion in part by asking public employees to pay a greater share of their pension and health insurance costs. The bill would also curb collective bargaining rights and make it tougher for public employee unions to operate.
Alexandra Nieves, 35, another police officer, says the bill "is upsetting." The governor's take-back on pensions and health insurance was something she never anticipated when she joined the force three years ago. Still, it's his proposal to curb collective bargaining that disturbs her most. "What have we fought for all these years?" she asks angrily. "It's like telling a woman you can't vote—that you should take off your shoes and go back to the kitchen."
The governor, asked by ABC News if he was surprised by the size of the turnout, said, "No, not at all. When you do something bold, you'll get a reaction."
The governor had telegraphed his intentions even before he assumed office. In a speech last December he had declared, "We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots."
His bill now asks state workers to pay 5.8 percent of their own pension costs (that percentage, he says, is below the national average) and 12.6 percent of health insurance costs (about half the national average, he says). Those changes together would help produce $30 million in savings in the last quarter of the current fiscal year.
Protesters who spoke with ABC News professed to have little or no problem with those changes.
"Public employees are willing to make sacrifices," says Favour. "I made $70,000 in salary alone last year, with benefits on top of that. Madison's police are among the highest paid in the state. I certainly don't want to make less money, but my wife—who's also an officer—and I have discussed it, and we understand it's a time for shared sacrifice. We expect our incomes will stay level or retreat. We're prepared for that."
What he and other protesters said they weren't prepared for were sweeping changes in the governor's proposal that would reduce state workers' right to engage in collective bargaining.
Collective bargaining by most public employees would be limited to wages. Other changes would require collective bargaining units to take an annual vote to maintain certification as a union. Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues, and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. Local law enforcement and fire fighters would be exempt from these changes.
Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies at Cornell University, says Walker is acting well within his authority as governor.
No federal law requires states to offer collective bargaining to public employees. Each state can determine what, if any, those rights will be. Hurd nonetheless calls the situation in Wisconsin "dramatic" and "unusual," in light of the fact that Wisconsin has such a long history of collective bargaining: In 1963 it was one of the first states to offer it to public employees.
Other cash-strapped states, Hurd notes, are attempting similar restrictions. Legislation limiting the power of public unions is under discussion in Maine, Alabama, Ohio, Arizona, Missouri and several other states. John Kasich, the new Republican governor of Ohio, is proposing to deny 14,000 state child care and home care workers the right to unionize. Democratic governors including Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York are attempting their own public union reforms.
Though Walker's bill explicitly gives police and fire unions the right to continue to engage in collective bargaining, members of both see it as a ploy to buy their acquiescence. Favour doesn't put much stock in the bill's exemption. "There's nothing to say the legislature can't pass that law and then un-exempt us," he says. "We certainly believe we're next. This exemption is just a bribe to get us to go along. Cops can't be bribed."
"He's trying to make our state a right-to-work state," says Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin. "Even though it's ten below outside, we're beginning to feel like we're down south." He refers to the fact that most right-to-work states are in the south and west. "All thrown away with one swoop of the pen," he says of labor's bargaining rights.
In Wisconsin and other states, benefits changes are creating another kind of have and have-not dichotomy: Older union members, who negotiated their packages in happier economic times, are today well off. Younger members and new hires, by contrast, have to settle for packages more pinched, less generous.
Madison's police union marchers, says Favour, were for the most part younger people who've been on the force only a few years. Their reduced benefits, he says, are "a fundamental change to what they'd anticipated in terms of compensation."
Ordinarily, says Cornell's Hurd, that disparity would lead to dissention in the ranks between young and old--a fracturing of solidarity. Not so now, however. "Nothing so unifies labor as this kind of challenge to what they see as a fundamental right," Hurd explains.
Internal resentments between veterans and new hires trend to disappear, and the two sides draw together for mutual defense. "This kind of challenge to their right to exist will force them to become even more aggressive politically. It will be a long term political fight."
Reversals are to be expected: A number of states, including Kentucky and New Mexico, have enacted changes to collective bargaining only to see them undone two years later. "It's not unusual to see reversals, one administration to the next."
Gov. Walker, asked by ABC News if he thinks he has enough votes to assure passage of his bill, says, "absolutely. We're waiting for some amendments, which we expect to receive within the hour. It will pass out of committee today. By the end of the week, it will have passed both houses." As for the protesters, he questions whether there really were as many as 30,000. But if there were, "it's a small percentage of the 300,000 state and government workers," not to mention of 5.5 million state taxpayers. "I said today, earlier, that the people in the street have the right to be heard, but not to drown out the voices of 5.5 million."
Passions, for now, seem to be under control. Wisconsin, notes officer Favour, has a long tradition not just of progressive politics but of "being polite to one another in an adult manner, without thousands having to take to the streets in protest."
Even now, with thousands in the streets, people are remaining well behaved. He himself pretty much has to: "My wife is the lieutenant in charge of crowd control."