Wisconsin union protest: Beards, budgets and bargaining

By Jonny Dymond
BBC News, Wisconsin

Image caption,
Protests continued through the evening and into the night at the state capitol building in Madison

An odd scene in the lobby of the swankiest hotel in Madison, the capital city of the US state of Wisconsin: instead of businessmen murmuring into their phones and tourists hunched over maps, 60 or 70 burly guys, most wearing beards, stand around sucking on coffees, placards at their feet.

There are a lot of baseball caps here, a fair few sunglasses pushed up on greying hair, dark windcheaters emblazoned with union logos - car workers, sheet metal workers, healthcare providers.

From well beyond the state borders, union brothers (and some sisters) have heeded the call to join the protests.

Wisconsin has become that odd thing in modern America, a place with a whiff of open class conflict.

Republican Governor Scott Walker, facing a budget deficit that balloons from $136m (£83.71m) in 2010-11 to $3.6bn from 2011 to 2013, proposed hiking public sector workers' contributions to pensions and healthcare coverage.

'Assault on unions'

The unions say the increase will hit take-home pay by about 8%, but they have agreed to it.

The governor and Senate Republicans have also proposed to scrap the right of most public sector workers to collective bargaining on issues other than base wages, to stop the docking of union fees from pay packets and to force annual votes on union recognition.

This, public sector union leader Rick Badger says, is nothing more than an assault on the union movement.

"All of our members realize that he ran on balancing the budget and that would probably mean sharing some pain for the employees and the workers," Mr Badger says.

"But this past week he came out and said 'no, not only do we want sacrifices which the union agreed to, we want to take your collective bargaining rights', in other words, make unions irrelevant in the state of Wisconsin."

Image caption,
Far from the "leeches" derided by the right, the protesters seem pretty ordinary - and pretty angry

Since last Thursday, Democratic state senators - conscious that they could be easily voted down by the Republican majority - have been holed up out of state, depriving the Senate of the numbers necessary to hold a vote on the budget measure.

In their place, tens of thousands of demonstrators have arrived in the state capital.

'Pampered leeches'

And with them has come a national debate about the public sector, the unions, and who should pay for the fiscal hole in which many states and cities have fallen.

Some on the American political right paint public sector workers as little more than pampered leeches, enjoying health and pension benefits that ordinary Joes in the private sector can only dream of.

But marching around the sunny snow-covered capitol building in Madison, the prison workers, teachers and nurses seemed pretty ordinary themselves - and pretty angry too.

"We all know that we are taxpayers and that we have to pay in to keep the budget moving," says Richard Gondert, a corrections officer from Milwaukee.

"But when you are taking way our collective bargaining, you are taking away our rights to have a voice around the table."

And so the demonstrators gather in front of the capitol for an eighth day, emboldened by support from across the US.

Has the Republican governor bitten off more than he can chew?

'Suing for Viagra'

Not at all, says Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. If reform does not come now, it never will, he says, denying the union-bashing charge.

Collective bargaining over wages is a big part of the states' fiscal problem, he says.

Image caption,
Union members acknowledge that Mr Walker's budget-cutting campaign agenda would bring pain

"It is this programme that allowed a bus driver in Madison to get over $150,000 a year by accumulating a ridiculous amount of overtime," Mr Jefferson says.

"It was this collective bargaining agreement that allowed the Milwaukee public school teachers to sue the district to allow Viagra to be allowed in their insurance at a cost of $750,000 a year to taxpayers. The system is broken and we cannot lose this opportunity to fix it."

In Madison, there is a lot of support for the public sector workers - perhaps not surprising in a university town one Republican called a "liberal hotbed". It is difficult to find anyone with a bad word to say about the demonstrators.

Must-win battle

But on one thing nearly everyone - right, left, inside the state and out of it - agrees; this is not just about Wisconsin.

In Indiana, Democratic legislators have copied their Wisconsin counterparts' walkout tactic. In Columbus, Ohio, protesters jammed the statehouse as another governor tried to curb collective bargaining rights.

And across the country, as states face rising bills, recession-hit revenues and the withdrawal of federal aid, the time for cuts has come.

With their eye on the local and the national, each side in Wisconsin feels this is a battle they must not lose.

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