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Wisconsin protests grow as teachers balk at proposed legislation


Protesters have gathered at Wisconsin's Capitol for days to oppose the governor's proposed labor changes.

Republicans who swept into power in state capitols this year with promises to cut spending and bolster the business climate now are beginning to usher in a new era of labor relations that could result in the largest reduction of power in decades for public employee unions.

But as massive public protests and legislative boycotts in Wisconsin have shown, the Republican charge can be fraught with risk and unpredictable turns as politicians try to transform campaign ideas into action.

The question GOP governors and lawmakers are now facing is exactly how far they can go without encountering a backlash. Do they merely extract more money from school teachers, prison guards, and office workers to help ease their states’ budget problems? Or do they go at the very core of union power by abolishing the workers’ right to bargain collectively? Do they try to impose changes by steamrolling the opposition, or by coming to the bargaining table?

“The consequences will be rolling forth for many, many years,” said James Gregory, director of Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington. “The battle lines have been drawn and will be replicated around the country. This is going to be very tough for unions and public sector employees.”

For more on school labor-management relations:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Editorial: Public school employees under attack

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

In Wisconsin, new Republican Gov. Scott Walker is going for it all—the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public employees, plus sharp increases in their health care and pension payments. His plan advanced quickly to the Republican-led Senate, despite several days of protests that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators to the Capitol. Then Senate Democrats suddenly fled the state Feb. 17, bringing the legislative process to a halt.

Education at stake

As union supporters moved inside for a sixth straight day of protests at the Wisconsin Capitol, Gov. Scott Walker reiterated Feb. 20 that he wouldn’t compromise on the issue that had mobilized them, a bill that would eliminate most of public employees’ collective bargaining rights.

The party’s stand against balancing the state’s budget by cutting the pay, benefits, and collective bargaining rights of public workers—including educators—is the boldest action yet by Democrats to push back against last fall’s GOP wave.

President Barack Obama has also weighed in, saying in an interview with Milwaukee television station WTMJ that Walker’s bill to “an assault on unions.”

Under Walker’s plan, state and local public employees could no longer collectively bargain over any issue except wage increases that are no higher than the Consumer Price Index. It would also make workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. State employees’ costs would go up by an average of 8 percent.

The changes would save the state $30 million by June 30 and $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

Unions could still represent workers, but they could not force employees to pay dues and would have to hold annual votes to stay organized. Local police, firefighters, and state troopers would retain their collective bargaining rights. But despite the exemption, many of them have shown up at the rallies in support.

For video on the protests:

Gov. Walker rejects compromise

A student’s POV on the protests

Close view of protests

Democratic lawmakers have said they and union members would agree to financial concessions that the Republican governor wants in exchange for workers keeping their collective bargaining rights. But Walker said he wasn’t willing to budge, and he expected the bill to pass as is.

The controversial measure led to massive protests that started Feb. 15 and have gained steam each day. An estimated 68,000 people turned out Saturday. Most opposed the bill, but the day marked the first time that a significant contingent of Walker supporters showed up to counter-protest.

The governor insists the concessions he is seeking from public workers—including higher health insurance and pension contributions—are necessary to deal with the state’s projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs.

Thousands of teachers have joined the protests by calling in sick, forcing school districts—including the state’s largest, in Milwaukee—to cancel classes.

“The get-tough-with-teachers policy that many politicians are pursuing is counterproductive and will only anger educators and hurt children. We are seeing the first examples of this in Wisconsin,” said Joseph DePierro, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Seton Hall University.

“None of the reforms being proposed around the nation—school choice, merit pay, tenure elimination—have ever been linked to improved student performance. We keep looking for the silver bullet, but we will never find it because it does not exist,” he said.

For more on school labor-management relations:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Editorial: Public school employees under attack

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

“This isn’t the Wisconsin we want,” said Mary Bell, president of the 98,000-member statewide teachers’ union. “We want a voice in the process.”

The protests have attracted as many as 25,000 teachers, grade school children, college students, and other workers over four days. The demonstrations have been largely peaceful, with only nine people cited for minor acts of civil disobedience.

Jacob Cedillotootalian, a 27-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student and teaching assistant, said Sunday was the third night that he slept in the Capitol as part of a union representing teaching assistants and he didn’t see an end coming anytime soon. He said he was worried about paying more for his health insurance and tuition, but what kept him protesting was the possibility of losing the union.

“Normalcy would be nice,” the English instructor said. “But it seems the governor and the state Republicans are intent on taking these rights away.”

The bill would require government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs and limit collective bargaining to pay increases less than the Consumer Price Index. Walker says the measure is needed to deal with the state’s projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

Drenched in rain, former Democratic Party Chairman Joe Wineke arrived Feb. 20 to protest. A former state senator, Wineke said he was impressed by the 14 Democratic state senators who fled Wisconsin on Feb. 17 to delay a vote on the bill. They remained gone over the weekend, leaving the Legislature one vote short of the number needed to take action.

For more on school labor-management relations:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Editorial: Public school employees under attack

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Feb. 20 that the senators weren’t likely to come back until the governor was willing to compromise.

Erpenbach said he remained at a Chicago hotel and his colleagues were “scattered” out of state. They had a conference call the night of Feb. 19, and Erpenbach said they remained united in their effort to stall the bill.

A nation of protests

Wisconsin was the first battleground. But it is unlikely to be the last.

A similar proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights drew throngs of protesters Feb. 17 at the Ohio Capitol. Hundreds more have demonstrated in Tennessee and Indiana, where Republican-led committees have advanced bills to restrict bargaining rights for teachers’ unions. And governors from Nevada to Florida have been touting the need to weaken union powers and extract more money from government employees to help balance out-of-whack budgets.

The confrontation comes as organized labor is reeling from a steady loss of members in the private sector. The public sector, with about 7.6 million members, now account for the majority of workers on union rolls, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among union leaders, a sense of crisis is growing. Labor is preparing to spend at least $30 million to fight anti-union legislation in dozens of states, according to internal budget numbers reviewed by The Associated Press. They’re lobbying local officials, organizing public rallies, working phone banks and buying television and newspaper ads in a desperate attempt to swing public opinion.

“Plans are being put into place to silence workers, lower their wages, cut their benefits, and increase the likelihood that they will suffer injuries and fatalities at work,” said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “It is happening at a breakneck pace and too little attention is being paid.”

For more on school labor-management relations:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Editorial: Public school employees under attack

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

Labor plans to spend large amounts of money on battles in Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Unions see their goal as not just playing defense – as opponents chip away at bargaining rights – but going on offense to try to educate the public about the role of unions.

But last fall’s midterm elections, which brought the defeat of many union-supported candidates and victories by pro-business Republican adversaries, show the difficulty the unions face in a climate shaped by the sour economy. In many states, Republican governors have blamed unions in part for the state budget crisis by negotiating flush benefit packages for public workers that have forced states to slash aid to schools, social services and important services.

Wisconsin’s legislation, for example, not only would eliminate collective bargaining rights but also force public workers to pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage – increases the governor calls “modest” compared with those in the private sector. It’s projected to save $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, citing an estimated $8 billion budget gap, wants to restrict union rights for state workers and in townships, cities, counties, school districts and publicly funded universities. The legislation would generally eliminate salary schedules.

Kasich drew support from local tea party leader Ted Lyons, an electronics executive from Troy, Ohio, who said the proposed union changes are long overdue. “The labor unions have become so powerful now on a worldwide basis,” Lyons said. “It’s beyond just the benefits of the membership, it’s about all the spending.”

Lyons’ voice was nearly drowned out by a crowd of protesters.

But some other Republicans are intentionally avoiding the sorts of confrontations that have sparked demonstrations.

For more on school labor-management relations:

ED to unions, districts: Can’t we all just get along?

How to raise student achievement through better labor-management collaboration

Editorial: Public school employees under attack

For more on school reform:

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

School Reform Center at eSN Online

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the former chief operating officer of computer manufacturer Gateway Inc., won election last November on a similar pro-business agenda and also wants savings from public employee costs. But he’s not seeking to abolish collective bargaining rights and has publicly denounced legislative efforts to strike at union membership and fees.

Snyder wants all government employees to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums. But he’s not ramming the change at unions, and went out of his way Feb. 17 to highlight his desire to work with them.

“As a practical matter, we’re asking for $180 million in concessions, and we know we need to go bargain for that,” Snyder told reporters after delivering his 2011-12 budget proposal. “We want to do that thoughtfully in partnership with our employees. We’re not here to create threats.”

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