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Wisconsin governor shows optimism

Plan to weaken unions draws 6th day of protests

Union members held an American Flag as they marched yesterday in Madison, Wis. Union members held an American Flag as they marched yesterday in Madison, Wis. (Andy Manis/Associated Press)
By Ryan J. Foley
Associated Press / February 21, 2011

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MADISON, Wis. — Governor Scott Walker predicted yesterday that Wisconsin would lead states across the country in weakening unions that have negotiated compensation packages taxpayers can no longer afford, and his opponents rallied for a sixth day in the Capitol in an attempt to avoid that fate.

Democratic lawmakers, union leaders, and rank-and-file teachers and firefighters called on Walker to back off his plan to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees.

They argued the unions had already agreed to cuts in their health care and retirement benefits that could reduce take-home pay for many workers by about 8 percent, and it was time for the Republican governor to compromise.

In an interview from Madison with Fox News, Walker said he did not believe union leaders were really interested in giving up their benefits and that cities, school districts, and counties will need weakened unions to cut spending for years to come.

With Democratic senators still out of state to delay passage of the bill, Walker said he would not compromise and predicted that Wisconsin would pave the way for other states to follow suit, much like it did with welfare reform and school vouchers in the 1990s.

“We’re willing to take this as long as it takes, because in the end we’re doing the right thing,’’ Walker said.

The sweeping measure led to massive protests that started Tuesday and have gained steam, including an estimated 68,000 people who turned out Saturday. Most opposed the bill, but the day marked the first time that a significant contingent of Walker supporters showed up to counterprotest.

Hundreds of protesters gathered inside the Capitol yesterday. The demonstrators banged on drums and danced in the Capitol Rotunda while they chanted, “This is what democracy looks like’’ and “union busting!’’

The crowd swelled throughout the day. Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the state AFL-CIO, told the crowd the protests would continue until the proposal was killed.

Another large protest is expected today, when many state workers are being furloughed to save money.

Mariah Clark, an emergency medical technician at the University of Wisconsin hospital and a volunteer firefighter, said she stands to lose $250 per month from her income with the benefits concessions.

Standing on a bench holding a sign reading “EMT. Firefighter. Not the public enemy,’’ she said the pay cut would hurt, but that’s not why she was protesting.

“I really believe this is about workers everywhere, not just public employees,’’ said Clark, 29.

Jacob Cedillo Tootalian, a 27-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student and teaching assistant, slept overnight in the Capitol for a third time as part of a union representing teaching assistants.

He said he was worried about paying more for his health insurance and tuition, but what kept him protesting was the possibility of losing the union.

The bill would require government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs and limit collective bargaining to pay increases less than the Consumer Price Index unless approved in a local referendum. Workers could not negotiate their benefits and working conditions. Unions could not force their workers to pay dues and would face a vote every year to remain certified.

Walker denied the bill was an attempt at “union busting’’ and said the measure is needed to deal with the state’s projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall for the two-year period that ends June 30, 2013.

He told Fox News he hoped the senators would return to work early this week.

Senator Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat, said in a telephone interview yesterday that the senators weren’t likely to come back until the governor was willing to compromise. The Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican, said the chamber will convene to pass nonspending bills and act on appointments tomorrow even if minority Democrats remain out of state.

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