Competing Wisconsin protests peaceful, draw thousands

MADISON, Wisconsin Sat Feb 19, 2011 4:09pm EST

1 of 13. Protesters crowd the State capitol grounds as members of the Wisconsin State Government discuss a proposed bill by Republican Governor Scott Walker, in Madison Februrary 18, 2011. The proposal by Walker to curb the bargaining rights of public unions in order to make immediate budget savings has sparked outrage among union workers in the state.

Credit: Reuters/Darren Hauck

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MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Supporters of legislation to reduce public employee union bargaining power and benefits in Wisconsin were far outnumbered by opponents on Saturday, as the two sides shouted competing slogans but did not clash.

Tens of thousands have demonstrated throughout the week against Republican Governor Scott Walker's proposed legislation, which supporters say is needed to bring spending under control and opponents contend would break the back of state worker unions.

Wisconsin is the flashpoint for a U.S. struggle over efforts to roll back pay, benefits and bargaining rights of government workers. If the majority Republicans prevail, other states could be emboldened to take on the powerful unions.

Both sides drew thousands to the state capital Madison on Saturday -- unofficial estimates put the total near 40,000 -- but opponents appeared to have several times as many as those backed by Tea Party groups, the first appearance by members of the conservative, limited-government movement this week.

The bill's opponents marched counter-clockwise around the state Capitol, encircling the legislation's supporters and chanting "kill the bill."

The supporters countered with "Recall them all," referring to Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois to deny Republicans the quorum needed to consider the proposal.

In addition to sharply curtailing union bargaining power, the Republican legislation would make state workers contribute more to health insurance and pensions.

FRIENDLY ATMOSPHERE

"I've been working in a factory for 26 years. We pay 15 percent for the cost of our healthcare. The state workers get Cadillac insurance and pensions. They have no God-given right to collective bargaining," said bill supporter Anthony Thelen, 46, who works in a nonunion factory outside of Milwaukee.

Although there had been fears of a fight, the atmosphere was generally peaceful and friendly, with organizers on both sides urging followers to be courteous and police needing to do little but stand by.

Margaret Derr, a high school math teacher and union member, said she didn't dislike the governor personally.

"I'm just opposed to the bill. I have no problem contributing more to my healthcare and pension. I understand about the deficit, but some of the proposals are just about union busting."

Walker estimates the state budget deficit for the rest of this fiscal year at $137 million and for the next two fiscal years under its biannual budget at $3.3 billion.

He wants state workers to increase contributions to pensions to 5.8 percent of salary and double contributions to health insurance premiums to 12.6 percent.

The proposal would limit collective bargaining to the issue of wages and cap increases to the rate of inflation, with a voter referendum needed for bigger increases.

It also would end government collection of union dues, allow workers to opt out of unions, and require unions to hold recertification votes every year. Walker said the alternative is to lay off more than 10,000 public employees.

Public sector workers are the backbone of the union movement in the United States.

Only 12 percent of U.S. workers were represented by unions in 2010, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics says. While just 7 percent of private sector workers belonged to unions last year, 36 percent of public workers were organized, the bureau said.

(Editing by Jerry Norton and Philip Barbara)

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Comments (38)
5toolplayer wrote:
Welcome to the United States of Burundi! I have been to countries that have no labor unions. The pervasiveness of poverty, hunger, homelessness and other societal ills is appalling. There is no middle class in these countries. The truth is that workplace safety laws, child labor laws, the forty hour work week, and overtime pay would not exist if it weren’t for labor unions. Industries with strong labor unions not only set decent wage and working condition standards for its own workers, but for NON-UNION workers as well. That’s YOU, people. How these right-wing ideologues have been able to succeed in convincing people to harbor beliefs that work against their own self interests is mind-numbingly shocking to me. I shouldn’t have to point out to you that Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly are not in the same economic class as you and I. How do you think America’s middle class came into existence in the first place, folks? Do you think the robber baron millionaires and billionaires fought for it?

Feb 18, 2011 7:56pm EST  --  Report as abuse
FrankMB wrote:
We like the odds, too. Power to the People. This will not stand.

Feb 18, 2011 8:12pm EST  --  Report as abuse
neddi wrote:
If the governor had been an honest broker, and sat down with the workers and the unions to come to a reasonable compromise as they have in the past, the protests would not be happening now.
Also, the governor ran on creating jobs, and other positive issues in a very close race, but as soon as he got into office, he tried to take away the rights of the citizens, teachers, and other union employees. If the governor had been honest with the people, and not given 117 million in tax cuts to the wealthy, and then claimed that the state had to balance the budget on the backs of the hardest working citizens in Wisconsin, these protests would not be happening.
Kudos to the Democrat leaders who left town to protect the rights of the people. The wealthy have run roughshod over the middle class too many times, and for too long. The people are feed up, and their not going to take it anymore ! Power to the People in Wisconsin, and Ohio, and all states where their government officials who work for them, are trying to intimidate them, and pull a fast one.
The terms and conditions of workers pensions can not be changed in the middle of the stream. The changes the governor wants to make is not what the employees signed up for, not what they invested in, and they will not be robbed by a new governor who only won by misrepresenting ads, and misinformed promises. Hooray for the citizens of Wisconsin who are standing up for their rights, and hooray to the Democratic officials who work for them, and are attempting to protect their rights just as they were elected to do.

Thank you,

Nedrea Richards
Hickory, N.C. 28602

Feb 18, 2011 8:39pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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