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Huge Crowds Rally in Wisconsin To Preserve Worker Rights

Wisconsin rally  

Tens of thousands of Wisconsinites poured into Madison starting on Feb. 15, many of them camping out at the Capitol building, to rally against Gov. Scott Walker's budget plan and his attempt to strip workers of their long-standing bargaining rights. Those rallies continued with even bigger crowds throughout the week. Hundreds of concerned citizens also lined up for hours for the chance to speak at a legislative committee hearing and voice their opposition to the proposal, which would turn back a half century of workers' rights and protections in the state. (See earlier story.)

AFT president Randi Weingarten, who went to Wisconsin Feb. 17 to thank the protestors and meet with AFT members and leaders, said the events there have captured the nation's attention. "Let's be clear," she said. "Gov. Walker's extremist agenda won't create one job. Stripping workers of their rights won't bring economic recovery. Suppressing workers voices won't fix the fiscal crisis." (See full statement.)

Among other things, Walker's proposed changes (which are part of a budget repair bill introduced Feb. 11) would strip workers of the right to bargain over anything other than wages; increase the amount state, school district and municipal employees pay toward their pension benefits; and drastically increase state employee health insurance contributions.

Grass-roots opposition to the governor's extreme plan has spread far beyond the capital, with rallies at local schools, press conferences by private sector unions standing in solidarity with their public sector counterparts, support from members of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, and countless editorials and blogs condemning Walker. In a Feb. 16 Washington Post column Harold Meyerson noted that Walker's desire to strip bargaining rights—and call out the National Guard to put down any protests—is "a throwback to 19th-century America, when strikes were suppressed by force of arms. Or, come to think of it, to Mubarak's Egypt or communist Poland and East Germany."

President Obama also weighed in on the side of the state’s public employees in an interview with a Milwaukee radio station. "Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain, generally seems like more of an assault on unions," he said. “And I think it’s very important for us to understand that public employees, they’re our neighbors, they’re our friends. These are folks who are teachers and they’re firefighters and they’re social workers and they’re police officers. They make a lot of sacrifices and make a big contribution. And I think it’s important not to vilify them or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees."

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke directly to the issue on Feb. 16 in Denver at a national conference on labor-management collaboration in the schools—work driven primarily through the collective bargaining process. Responding to a question from the audience, Duncan said he was "deeply concerned" about the deteriorating climate in states like Florida and Wisconsin, and he planned to speak with Wisconsin state leaders immediately following the collaboration conference. "We've seen union leadership in Wisconsin step up and do some very courageous work, and we want to see that work rewarded," the education secretary said.

For updated information,  a list of actions that supporters of Wisconsin's workers can take, as well as online resources, visit our We Are One: Wisconsin page. [Dan Gursky, AFL-CIO, WISC-TV]

February 16, 2011