Drum-pounding, pro-labor demonstrators marched around the Wisconsin Capitol well into the night, carrying signs that read “Rebellion” and “We’re Not Licked” after lawmakers passed curbs on government unions.
Hours after the Assembly gave final approval yesterday to a bill that limits collective bargaining to wages for most government workers, though, it was clear to some that a sea change had occurred.
Michael Lipp, president of the teachers union in the state capital, Madison Teachers Inc., said he usually gets about 120 calls every Thursday in a regular discussion about retirement.
“Those numbers have gone up by another 100 to 120 in each of the last three Thursdays,” Lipp said in a telephone interview. “I see a huge bubble coming.”
Governor Scott Walker says he’ll sign the bill into law as soon as he legally can. The Republican said restrictions on collective bargaining will give local governments flexibility to curb costs. Last week, Walker unveiled a two-year budget proposal that seeks $3.4 billion in cuts and savings to help close a $3.6 billion gap.
The Assembly debate preceding the vote helped define the three-week fight in Wisconsin as a battle over the pay and benefits of government workers compared with those in industry.
Republican Assemblyman Robin Vos of Rochester said public employees deserve good-paying jobs, health care and pensions.
“But you know what I think about?” Vos said in a floor speech. “About the same number of people, about 175,000 people, who over the course of the past two years have lost their good- paying jobs, they lost their health insurance in many cases, and they lost their retirement and have had to spend those days trying to figure out how to make ends meet.”
Democrats called the bill a breach of trust and a rollback of 50 years of employment law in the state.
“This is disgraceful and you all know it,” said Assemblywoman Tamara Grigsby, a Milwaukee Democrat. “And you’re going to pay a price for it.”
Unions may be the first to pay. The Wisconsin bill “could spell the beginning of the end of public-sector unions,” said former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who now teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
Unless the bill is nullified, either in the courts or through voter recalls of Republican senators, it will embolden governors in other states to push similar legislation, Reich said by e-mail.
Workers’ Costs Rise
The bill, which exempts police and firefighters, would require annual recertification votes for union representation and would make the payment of dues voluntary. State workers would contribute 5.8 percent of their salary toward pensions and pay 12.6 percent of their health-insurance costs.
When the measure passed the Assembly yesterday 53-42, the spectators’ gallery erupted with people shaking their fists and chanting, “Shame, shame, shame.” Hours after the vote, demonstrations continued inside and outside the Capitol, where thousands had gathered earlier in the day to protest the bills.
“This is a stain on our democracy,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, a Kenosha Democrat, said in a floor speech. “It is a stain so deep that I don’t know that it can ever be removed.”
Before the vote, the Capitol was temporarily locked down, preventing Assembly members from getting in. It delayed the start of the day’s session by three hours.
“I know that you feel passionate that this is going to ruin Wisconsin,” said Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, a Republican from Horicon. “That’s simply not true.”
The Ohio Senate passed a bill last week aimed at limiting collective bargaining for government employees. The proposals in both states incited protests across the U.S. and sparked debate about concessions by government unions as governors face combined budget gaps projected at more than $100 billion in the next fiscal year.
The bill in Wisconsin and similar legislation under consideration in Indiana would limit the political influence of public-worker unions by reducing the amount of money they can contribute to candidates and parties, said Paul Beck, who teaches politics at Ohio State University in Columbus.
“It obviously changes the balance of power in the campaign playing field and tilts it in the direction of big individual donors and corporations,” Beck said in a telephone interview.
Wisconsin stands in contrast to “other states where they’re cutting billions of dollars from aid to schools and local governments,” Walker, 43, said in a press briefing yesterday in Milwaukee. Those states aren’t providing local officials with tools to avoid “massive” layoffs or property- tax increases, said the first-term governor. Walker won election in November as Republicans gained control of the Legislature.
“I’m enraged,” said Becky Jenn, a speech pathologist from Madison who doesn’t belong to a union. “I’m horrified by the broken moral compass this shows.”
Barca, the Democratic leader, asked the district attorney of Dane County, where Madison is located, to investigate and reverse the Senate vote. Lawmakers violated Wisconsin law by failing to give 24 hours notice of the March 9 session, he said yesterday in a complaint filed with the prosecutor, Ismael R. Ozanne.
He was informed of the session to consider the bill less than two hours before the Senate convened, Barca said.
Americans reject Republican efforts to scale back benefits for government workers, 49 percent to 46 percent, a Bloomberg National Poll said this week. The March 4-7 telephone survey of 1,001 U.S. adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Almost two-thirds said public employees should have the right to bargain collectively for wages.
States shouldn’t be able to break promises to retirees, according to 63 percent of those polled. Forty-nine percent said governors trying to cut public-employee benefits are aiming to balance their budgets, while 43 percent said the purpose was to weaken the political power of unions.
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