Protests, Legislative Standoff Continue in Wisconsin

By Sean Cavanagh — February 22, 2011 3 min read
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Many Wisconsin teachers are expected to return to the classroom today, but the political drama continues to unfold over Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial proposal to curb the collective bargaining rights of most of the state’s public employees.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, a 98,000-member union, urged its members, who had taken to the streets during the past week to protest Walker’s plan, to return to school—or to stay on the job, if they had considered walking out. But the union also asked members to take part in local protests in their communities—in Green Bay, Milwaukee, Appleton, Oshkosh, Elkhorn, and other areas.

In the meantime, labor protests were expected in Ohio, which is considering changes in collective-bargaining, and Michigan. Unions in Nevada and Rhode Island indicated they would stage demonstrations to show their support for public workers.

[UPDATE (2:28 p.m.): The Indianapolis Star is reporting that Democratic lawmakers there, following the lead of Wisconsin legislators, have stayed away from the House chamber, apparently with the intention of preventing a vote on a measure to restrict collective bargaining.]

In Wisconsin, the Republican governor has put forward a plan that would require public employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to their pension plans, and cover about 12 percent of the average costs of their premiums.

Walker says that change is will bring public employees’ benefits roughly in line with what most private-sector workers receive. He also says it will help the state deal with its budget shortfall, projected at $3.6 billion over a two-year period.

The second piece of the governor’s plan is more controversial. He proposes limiting the collective bargaining power of many public employees, including teachers (though police and firefighters are excluded). Walker argues that local governments need the rights to rewrite contracts with workers to drive down their costs in the face of budget crises.

Wisconsins’ teachers suspect that Walker’s proposal is about busting unions, not saving money. The WEAC has said in recent days it will agree to the governor’s proposal to have teachers pay more for pensions and health care, but will fight his plans to curb collective-bargaining rights.

“Public employees have agreed to Governor Walker’s pension and health care concessions, which he says will solve the budget challenge,” said Mary Bell, the union’s president. “But Governor Walker’s bill goes too far and he has chosen polarizing rhetoric.”

Walker has said he won’t accept the unions’ offer, and it appears that Republicans in the state legislature are backing him up.

Democrats in the state senate have fled the state in an effort to prevent the GOP, which controls both chambers in the Wisconsin legislature, from staging a vote on Walker’s proposal. Republicans today have said they might try to draw the other party back to the state capitol in Madison by staging votes on measures that Democrats have opposed—such as requiring IDs for voters at polling sites.

A number of Republican governors are proposing increasing the amounts that teachers contribute to their pensions, including Rick Scott of Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey. See our recent coverage for background on the costs of state retirement systems and state officials’ interest in reigning in those expenses. In Wisconsin teachers’ generally don’t contribute anything to their pensions right now (benefits are negotiated locally, WEAC says) though the union has argued that that provision helps offset their relatively low wages.

GOP leaders are also pushing for major changes in collective bargaining, though Walker seems to be taking a much harder stance than most.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.