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US Public Sector Cuts Spark Protests in Wisconsin

Opponents of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers pack the rotunda at the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, Feb. 17, 2011
Opponents of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers pack the rotunda at the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, Feb. 17, 2011

Tens of thousands of people upset with a proposal to end collective bargaining rights for public sector employees in Wisconsin have taken to the streets of the state capital, Madison.  Some of the protestors in Wisconsin see a similarity between the recent protests in Egypt, and their movement to retain labor rights in the Midwest state, which is facing a budget deficit.

For several days, demonstrators like Bryan Kennedy have filled the streets of Madison, demanding lawmakers shoot down legislation that would dramatically change their working environment.  

For Kennedy, who is the President of the American Federation of Teachers in Wisconsin, the biggest problem is not the increase in health-care or pension costs proposed by Republican Governor Scott Walker.  It is his move to end collective bargaining rights by unions who represent workers in the public sector.

"What he has proposed is essentially stripping all public-sector workers of any rights in the work place whatsoever," he said.

When Scott Walker took over January 1 as governor of Wisconsin, the state faced a $137 million budget deficit.  The governor says his proposed budget-repair bill, which would end collective bargaining and increase public-sector employees contributions to health care costs and pensions, are modest sacrifices that will help balance the budget this year, and fill a $3.6 billion shortfall the state faces during the next two years.

While cutting taxes and creating jobs was a cornerstone of Walker’s campaign for governor last year, his budget-repair bill took many people by surprise.

"A lot of people are still in a state of shock," said Professor Andrew Reschovsky, who teaches Public Affairs and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin. "There is a long tradition in Wisconsin of responsible labor relationships, particularly in the public sector.  We have not seen in Wisconsin the kind of extraordinarily high benefits or strong union power that appear in some other states in the public sectors.  So I think this comes as a total shock to many people that here is a governor trying to destroy labor relationships that have worked very well."

Walker has the support of Wisconsin lawmakers.  Republicans control the legislature, and the budget-repair bill has already moved through several key hurdles, mostly along party lines.

Bryan Kennedy says the closer the bill comes to passing, the more people have taken to the streets to voice their opposition.

"We are seeing students walk out of school, and college campuses walk out of classes," he said.  "We are seeing parents groups who are protesting in front of schools in support of the teachers.  I mean this has become ... this is not a union issue or a union-led movement.  This is very much a community movement."

While the protests are largely peaceful, there is an increased police presence in Madison, both inside and outside the state capitol building.

Throughout the crowds were signs comparing Governor Walker to recently ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.  Though the demand for democratic reform in Egypt is starkly different to the proposed labor changes in Wisconsin, Kennedy believes there are important similarities.

"I find it interesting how many conservative talk show hosts were praising the protests in Egypt, which were essentially led by student groups and labor unions," he said.  "Yet they are so critical of us here.  I do not see us going away.  I mean, what you are seeing in the Middle East, where labor unions and student groups are saying we want democracy, we [also] want to have a say in what happens in our government and our work place, we are going to likely see the same thing play out in Wisconsin."

Many local and state governments are looking at the situation in Wisconsin as they address their own budget shortfalls.  Several states, including New York and Illinois, are looking at eliminating public sector jobs as they try to trim billion-dollar deficits.   New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed cutting more than 4,600 teachers during the next two years.

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