MADISON, WI; 11:59 p.m.; Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011--About 15,000 activists turned out for a boisterous rally at the state capital building here in Madison, WI, today as the state legislators held a public comment hearing before voting on whether to accept new GOP Governor Scott Walker's plan to bust the public employee unions at both the state and local level.
It wasn't just public employees protesting; in fact, most were on duty working. But those that were able to come were well fortified by thousands of other people--union and nonunion alike--who gathered en masse to protest Walker's scheme to destroy collective bargaining across the board.
As previously reported in this column, Walker's plan goes far beyond any proposed or implemented in any other state in the US. While he has publicly focused on increased worker co-pays for pensions and health care benefits, his plan would also literally strip unions of their ability to bargain.
Some workers would have no collective bargaining rights whatsoever, such as university academics and staff, teaching assistants, child care providers, and home health care workers (that last three groups being among the lowest paid in the state). Only firefighters and police would have full bargaining rights to wages, rules, and working conditions. All other unions would be allowed to negotiate only over wage increases, which would not be permitted in any case to exceed the consumer price index.
The proposal also strikes at the most vulnerable. One young woman, a limited term employee (LTE), gave compelling testimony to the legislators that should have perked up everybody's ears. As a temp, she earns bottom tier wages. As a temp, she has no union to represent her. As a temp, she works with other temps who have been cllassified temps for as long as 13 years. And she's pregnant.
Walker's scheme would take away all benefits from her and other LTEs: no pensions, no health care. She choked back tears as she wondered how she was going to pay for the costs of delivering her baby. She had recently learned that a grant proposal she wrote got the state over $600,000.
Welcome to the future for state and local employment. Without union contracts, all employment will be at will. Anybody can be turned into an LTE with no benefits. Anybody can be fired for any reason.
As this is written, people are still testifying. It is now midnight. The night belongs to the young. Many are teachers, teaching assitants, students. A lot of them wanted to testify but were not allowed; they are camping out in the capital rotunda overnight; they brought their pillows and blankets and are ready to be thrown out if that's what it takes to send their message.
The capital building earlier today was packed to the third floor inside while protesters rallied outside in the cold, which had zero effect on their ability to chant, sing, clap, speechify, and generally raise hell. The Building Trades turned out in force as did the Teamsters, who showed up in their solidarity semi. Word rippled through the crowd of other solidarity actions throughout the state. At one point, somebody on the third floor of the capital building hung a solidarity flag out the window. The crowd erupted in cheers and applause.
Inside the testimony continued. There were skirmishes among the legislators, minor ones, as the Republican committee chair enforced the short two-minute time limit for comments. The Democrats pointed out the that budget proposal included "policy" items that had nothing to do with the budget, namely all the union busting provisions.
Dem. Mark Pocan, who testified, said that the $3.6 billion deficit claimed by Walker is bogus. It's more like $1.2 billion. Pocan said Walker is relying on an estimate based on an across the board administrative increase of 6.2 percent, which hasn't even been considered or approved by the legislature. Later in response to questions, Pocan and state rep Corey Mason both agreed that the number was probably inflated by the administration to make the financials look worse than they are and, consequently, to justify the extreme action. Then Walker can "look like Superman," Pocan said
The protest started at 11 a.m., and was still going strong by late afternoon. At 5 p.m. a special community forum was held at the Orpheum Theatre just down a block down from the capital building. More personal stories, solidarity greetings, panel discussion, and great impromptu announcements:
- One of the bridges over the Wisconsin River was crammed with demonstrators
- Students at East High and Stoughton High staged a walkout today in support of their teachers; students at Oregon High and Platteville High are reportedly walking out on Wednesday
- So many teachers are calling in sick for Wednesday that Madison schools will be shut down for the day
- Firefighters and police, who are exempt from the governor's union busting plan, have pledged their solidarity with all public workers; firefighters pledged $20,000 to help the cause (they had previously arrived at the rally in a fire truck)
- 70 more busloads of protesters will be arriving on Wednesday, including some 4500 state prison guards
- Unions may be going to court to seek an injunction against the bill, which, by all accounts, seems destined to pass
- Walker's whole plan may be illegal because under budget fix rules as a certain threshold for debt has to be met, and it hasn't yet (more info to be released tomorrow by the Dems)
Wednesday's rally is expected to be larger than today's. Nearby restaurants reported doubling staff to serve the crowd. One protester hit the nail on the head. "Walker has awakened a sleeping giant."
Watch the news. Check the blogs. Google... wisconsin budget protest
UPDATE: See photos direct from the rally in the second part of the story posted here: Eyewitness Photos: Over 15,000 Protest Union Busting in Wisconsin