There’s more to collective bargaining than wages and benefits

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It’s not about the money. As a public defender who handles hundreds of cases a year and can’t pay my law school loans, I can vouch for that. I’ve been a Wisconsin state employee and a member of the Wisconsin State Public Defenders Association for five years. Prior to public service, I worked at a law firm and in private practice. I know that my prospects for significantly higher wages lie in the private sector. Yet, like my counterparts all over the state, I consciously chose public service because I believe that justice requires a capable defense regardless of the economic circumstances of the accused.

Like my fellow public sector workers, I entered into a contract with the state. I agreed to accept a lower wage in exchange for deferred compensation—the promise of a pension benefit—and health insurance for myself, my wife and my two children. This was part of the negotiation, the agreement, when I accepted the job. And in spite of the fact that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget repair” proposal unilaterally changes the terms of my contract and, if passed, will take thousands of dollars out of my family’s already tight budget, I, like most public employees, would likely have endured that hit.

What public workers cannot endure, however, is Gov. Walker’s attempt to silence our collective voice. Collective bargaining rights—union workers’ collective voice for addressing the conditions under which we serve our state—affect more than wages and benefits. We bargain for fair promotion and termination practices, due process in disciplinary matters, a safe working environment and sick leave, to name a few. These are rights for which workers have struggled and sacrificed for decades, and this governor proposes to strip away those rights with one stroke of his pen.

Gov. Walker’s overreach has awakened a sleeping giant—a giant with hundreds of thousands of voices demanding that workers be heard in the halls of power in Madison and across our country. Over the past several weeks, I joined hundreds of thousands of public and private sector workers who have gathered to speak truth to power at our Capitol and in meeting halls, libraries and school gymnasiums all over our state. And in spite of Gov. Walker’s campaign to demonize us, I have never been more inspired or more proud to be a union member and a Wisconsin public employee.

Wisconsin Public Defender David Saperstein heads to Capitol Square. Photo by Brent Nicastro. David Saperstein works at the Lancaster Trial Office in Grant County, Wis., where he serves Iowa and Richland counties in Southwest Wisconsin. He is a 1995 graduate of DePaul University College of Law in Chicago.Photo by Brent Nicastro