By Douglas Fehlen
Protests Follow Budget Proposal
Scott Walker, the newly elected governor of Wisconsin, has proposed dire cuts in his state's budget to deal with deficits. Among the areas targeted for cost-savings are public sector salaries and entitlements. Walker's current budget proposal would require schoolteachers and other state employees to cover a larger portion of pension and health care costs. The same bill would also eliminate the collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions, in effect leaving workers powerless to negotiate future benefits.
Calling Walker's proposal an attack on unions, tens of thousands of workers last week descended upon Wisconsin's Capitol building to protest the legislation. More than 40 percent of Madison's unionized teachers were among the protesters, forcing the city's school district to close. Middle school teacher Kim Hoffman, in an interview with The New York Times, laid out the stakes. Hoffman suggested that she and her educator husband stood to lose $1,200 a month. 'I love teaching,' she said, 'but I'd have to start looking for another job, period.'
A week later, protesters remained on the Capitol grounds, agreeable to some benefit cuts, but unwilling to give up collective bargaining rights. Despite ever-growing numbers of protesters and widespread national scrutiny of his proposal, Governor Walker has refused to back down. He suggests that failure to adopt his proposal will force layoffs of thousands of state workers. Further, he claims not passing the measure into law could cost local governments in Wisconsin $1 billion in funding.
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Momentum Grows for Unions
While state workers in Wisconsin have not yet won the legislative victory they seek, their cause has gained considerable momentum. Public sector employees not affected by the cuts - including police officers and firefighters - have joined the protests, as have individuals represented by public-sector unions. As electrical engineer Gary Langley explained in an interview, 'I support my union brothers and sisters and I want our students to have the best teachers they can possibly have.'
Protests have also had an impact in other states. In Indiana, for example, teachers attended a rally decrying a proposal similar to that forwarded by Governor Walker in Wisconsin. Protesters in Ohio have occupied the Statehouse in Columbus to support the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers. And Florida educators are utilizing social networking tools to arrange a massive protest currently scheduled for March 8th. Dozens of rallies in states across the country are set to take place over the coming weekend.
In the raging debate, politics have, of course, played an important role. All of the states that introduced bills limiting unions' collective bargaining rights have Republican governors, leading some to speculate that a multi-state effort is underway to use budget deficits as a means to weaken unions representing teachers and other public sector workers. Republicans have denied this claim, however, suggesting that public officials are individually doing what they must to balance budgets.
Learn how public funding cuts are also affecting higher education.