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Wisconsin’s Crowded Capitol: Collective-Bargaining Protest Grows

February 17, 2011 at 6:24 PM EST
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Amid the firestorm in Wisconsin over whether to scrap collective-bargaining rights for public employees, Ray Suarez speaks with Wisconsin Public Television Capitol reporter Adam Schrager, who has been covering the protests this week -- described as the largest in Madison since the 1960s.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, two takes on the fallout from budget pressures on state governments. First, a huge battle in Wisconsin between the governor and public sector workers.

Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: Inside and outside, tens of thousands of loud, impassioned protesters have thronged the state capitol in Madison all week long. The crowds are made up of schoolteachers, social workers, prison guards, firefighters.

Wisconsin state employees face the loss of their rights to collective bargaining.

MICHELLE HATCHEL, teacher: I have my dream job. I’m a passionate teacher. I don’t know what I will do. I haven’t even allowed myself to consider that.

RAY SUAREZ: The new governor, Republican Scott Walker, introduced the legislation a week ago, saying it was necessary to help close the state’s budget deficit over the next two years. With Republicans in control of the legislature, the measure had a speedy path, until now.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R-Wis.): We’re in a point of crisis. And we have got an economic and fiscal crisis in this state. And we need leaders who are going to stand up and look at things differently than what we’ve done in the past.

RAY SUAREZ: Republican leaders contend the changes would save Wisconsin $30 million by July, $300 million over the next two years.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER: The last thing we want to do to balance this next budget, which has a $3.6 billion deficit in it, is balance it on the backs of middle-class taxpayers with higher taxes that would drive people and jobs out of the state of Wisconsin.

GRACE COGGIO, teacher: Walker’s telling us, take one for the team. He’s not asking everyone to take one for the team.

RAY SUAREZ: Outside yesterday, various groups rallied in the cold night air in an attempt to stop the bill’s progress, among them, Mary Bell, head of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a teacher’s union.

MARY BELL, Wisconsin Education Association Council: This is not about protecting our pay and our benefits. It’s about protecting our right to collectively bargain.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: The protests have led to school cancellations throughout the state because a high percentage of teachers have called in sick, especially in Madison. Just before midnight, a joint finance committee passed the governor’s bill on a partisan vote.

WOMAN: We don’t have a lot of options here, folks. It’s not like we’re choosing to do this. We are broke.

WOMAN: And I think this is really — it’s putting lipstick on a pig. It’s not even lipstick. It’s Chap Stick. There are not — I mean, you know it’s there, but you can’t see it. The changes are pretty tough to find.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, the Senate expected to take action on the bill but was forced into a temporary suspension, because Senate Democrats didn’t show up. It’s believed the Democratic lawmakers have left the state.

TIM CULLEN (D), Wisconsin State Senator: They had agreed in caucus this morning to not be here at 11:00 and to — in order to prevent the Senate from acting on this bill.

RAY SUAREZ: The protests in Wisconsin inspired similar demonstrations in Ohio today. Again, collective bargaining was the issue.

And we have more on this story from our colleagues at Wisconsin Public Television.

Adam Schrager is the state capitol reporter and has been out covering the protests again today.

And, Adam, I understand the governor has just had a statement. What does Scott Walker have to say?

ADAM SCHRAGER, Wisconsin Public Television: He wants the senators, Ray, to show up. He says they’re paid to work, and they need to show up to work.

RAY SUAREZ: Does it seem that the governor was surprised or caught off guard by the vehemence of this reaction?

ADAM SCHRAGER: I think all longtime observers down at the capitol — I mean, Gov. Walker served in the legislature back in ’90s. He’s been around for a while.

I don’t think anyone has seen this kind of protest activity in the streets of Madison, from what we’re told, since the 1960s. It certainly — and it keeps growing. They had 25,000 people outside the capitol and inside the capitol today. That’s more than they had yesterday, which was more than they had on Tuesday.

These numbers keep growing, and people keep coming. It’s certainly growing and it’s expected to grow even more tomorrow.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there any indication in this latest statement that the governor is ready to make a deal, perhaps take out some of what the — its detractors would find the most offensive measures in this bill?

ADAM SCHRAGER: He said he’s willing to talk with anyone. And yet he said people have to show up to work in order to be spoken to.

And that was a very clear point that he made over and over again in his news conference that he just completed about a half-an-hour ago, that in order for any conversations to be made and to be had, that the actual senators needed to come back from Illinois or Iowa or wherever they are at this particular time.

RAY SUAREZ: Can the governor compel them to appear? Can he send out the state police to look for them?

ADAM SCHRAGER: He could.

You know, the Senate majority, the Republicans in the state Senate, sent out the sergeant at arms to find — they need it — right now, they need three-fifths of the members present to vote on any budget bill. And, right now, in the state Senate in Wisconsin, that would be 20 members. There are 19 Republicans. So, they need to find one Democrat.

And all of the Democrats right now, we’ve been told out, are out of state. You know, whether they send the state patrol after them, it is certainly an option. No one has gone into exactly what that’s going to look like. The Senate majority leader did hint at that earlier today, but certainly nothing along those lines has happened yet.

RAY SUAREZ: Adam, let’s take a closer look at the measure itself. What would it allow Gov. Walker to do that he can’t do right now?

ADAM SCHRAGER: Well, fundamentally, he’s trying to help bridge a budget deficit, both in the short term and in the long term.

And he’s looking to increase state workers’ pension contributions. He’s looking to increase state and local workers’ contributions to their health care. But the part that is really chafing everybody here in Wisconsin, at least the protesters out there right now, is this part about doing away with the collective bargaining rights.

Now, the governor will say that he needs to do this because, in the upcoming biennial budget that he is going to be introducing to the state next week, there’s going to be a $3.6 billion deficit that needs to be bridged, and the only way, as he cuts off some funding to these local communities in the local governments, the only way those local communities will be able to then balance their own budget is if he unties their hands, so to speak, by removing some of these collective bargaining obligations.

It’s important to note that none of this is retroactive. So, any contracts that are currently in place and currently signed between, say, locally elected school boards and teachers unions, for example, will not be voided. This is only going forward. But he believes that it’s essential in order to allow the state to actually balance its budget and allow these municipalities to do so as well, without, the key being, laying off any workers.

He threw out a figure tonight at his news conference of upwards of around 12,000 workers both at the state and the local level who could be laid off, he says, if his legislation doesn’t pass.

RAY SUAREZ: For his part, the governor and the Republican sponsors on the Senate side have said that this is not an anti-union bill; it’s about saving money.

Did the governor try to negotiate these cuts with the unions before proposing a measure that would take away their collective bargaining rights?

ADAM SCHRAGER: Negotiation is the key word that we have heard from a lot of the union supporters who have been protesting, is that they don’t feel they were asked to participate in this conversation.

Now, Gov. Walker will say he’s been talking about this on the campaign trail for months, and that anyone who was paying attention knew that this was the plan that he was going to implement, were he to win the election in November.

But, primarily, what we’re hearing from the protesters out there and the Democratic lawmakers in the state Senate and the state Assembly is that they were not even given the opportunity to weigh in on this.

We’re hearing time and again from — and you quoted the leader of the Wisconsin teachers union in your piece leading up to this interview, about how they are saying this is not about sacrificing wages; this is not about sacrificing pensions; this is not even about increasing health care costs. This is fundamentally, they would argue, about the right to collectively bargain, which they feel they have not had an opportunity to negotiate on.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, having said that, do state employees’ unions concede that, because of the crisis in Wisconsin, there has to be some kind of different relationship with the state government, their employers?

ADAM SCHRAGER: I don’t know that anybody is contradicting the concept of paying more, of sacrificing, if you will, from the work force perspective.

The biggest protestation that we have heard has been about that lack of a negotiation. It’s interesting to put this in some historical perspective. You know, Wisconsin was the home, Madison was the home in 1936 of the AFSCME, the first public service workers union. In 1959, Gaylord Nelson, who everybody knows is the father of Earth Day — at that point, he was governor of the state of Wisconsin — signed into law the first law in the country that allowed non-federal workers the opportunity to collectively bargain.

We are hearing on the streets the people who are protesting this are most angry that they don’t feel that they have had an opportunity to negotiate this with the governor.

RAY SUAREZ: Are some state workers exempt from the provision that would take away collective bargaining rights?

ADAM SCHRAGER: Some of the — some of the law enforcement folks are exempt. And the governor says he has exempted them specifically because the state cannot afford a strike, say, by police or a strike, say, by firefighters. So, he has exempted them from this measure.

RAY SUAREZ: In the meantime, has it started to show in Wisconsin that some state workers aren’t coming to work?

ADAM SCHRAGER: Well, you see that crowds have continued to grow. You know, whether or not there have been significant call-ins, specifically at the school levels — Madison is the second largest school district in the state of Wisconsin, and it has taken a second straight day without classes for students because there have been too many teachers that have called in sick.

There were a number of districts from around this state that also similarly canceled classes today. It’s going to be interesting to see. The call went out from the statewide teachers union last night to come down to the capitol both Thursday and Friday. It will be interesting to see. They are promising even larger crowds down here tomorrow. It will be interesting to see whether this continues to grow.

RAY SUAREZ: Adam Schrager of Wisconsin Public Television, thanks for joining us.