A year after the uproar, labor protests continue in Wisconsin (Part 1)

Feb 1, 2012

The nation was riveted on Madison, Wisconsin last year when tens of thousands of people protested Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to dismantle most union rights for state and local workers. Walker was successful. Now, a year later, how have those changes made life different in Wisconsin? Changing Gears has been taking a look at the impact state governments have on everyday life, and I take a look at Wisconsin in the first of two reports.

It’s noon, and on the steps of the Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, about 100 people are gathered in a circle, singing labor songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Solidarity Forever”. They have a conductor, drummer, someone passing out songbooks and even a cymbals player. It’s been dubbed the Solidarity Sing-A-Long.

People wave signs protesting Governor Walker as they walk. Some signs call for his recall.

Last Valentine’s Day, when the sing-a-long began, thousands of workers were protesting at the Capitol. They were trying to get legislators to stop Walker’s proposal to take away collective bargaining rights for state workers.

Wisconsin was one of the first states in the country to allow its public workers to unionize. Dues were taken right out of their paychecks, and they were represented by unions that bargained over wages, pensions and health care contributions.

When Act 10 passed last March, the unions remained, but their collective bargaining power was gone. Now, members have to opt into the union, instead of opting out.

Walker declined requests to be interviewed for this story. But in his State of the State address last week, he provided his perspective on what he was facing last year, when Wisconsin’s budget deficit was about $3.6 billion.

Act 10 was referred to as the Budget Repair Bill.

Today, Walker claims Wisconsin has a balanced budget. (Whether or not the budget is actually balanced is controversial in Wisconsin. Walker’s spokesman directed me to this website. But a recent LaCrosse Tribune editorial offers another view.)

Walker was interrupted several times by hecklers during his speech. But he was met with applause and cheers when he noted Wisconsin’s unemployment rate, which has dropped from 7.5 percent to 7.1 percent, is the lowest it’s been since 2008.

“We’re turning things around,” he said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”

State worker Paul Wright sees things differently.

“He turned around and stabbed us in the back,” said Wright, a 24-year veteran of the state’s corrections office. He said he, like most corrections officers, voted for Walker.

Since last July, Wright estimates he has made about $900 less a month because of increased pension and health care contributions.

In his case, the loss in income means Wright’s son is going to a local community college instead of the University of Wisconsin. He hopes his son will eventually be able to transfer to the more-expensive school.

And Wright says he’s actively involved in politics for the first time. He helped collect signatures for the petition to recall Governor Walker. Under his Packers sweatshirt, he showed me a red “Recall Walker” shirt. He has five of them, so he can wear one every day of the week.

Wright makes $26 an hour. That’s almost twice the average hourly pay for most state, county and municipal workers, according to Wisconsin’s state employees union, AFCSME Council 24.

“We now have folks who utilize food banks, food stamps, are living on the edge, paycheck to paycheck,” said Martin Bell, its executive director, adding the average pay of its members is about $14.50 an hour.

Before Act 10, the union represented 22,000 state workers. Now that workers have to sign up voluntarily, about half have done so. Beil is on the road most of the time recruiting them back into the union.

About 50 miles east of Madison, in Delafield, I stopped by the Wholly Cow Frozen Custard downtown. Delafield is between Madison and Milwaukee. The shop’s closed in the winter – it was 25 degrees when I was there, and owner Jan Stoffer says people don’t eat enough ice cream in the winter to keep it open.

Jan and her husband, Jim run the business together. In the winter, Jim works for the state teaching part-time at Waukesha Community Technical College. Jan is a business consultant. The couple don’t exactly see eye to eye on Walker.

Jim Stoffer applauded the governor’s political will in seeing Act 10 get passed.

“This guy inherited a lot of problems from Gov. Doyle,” he said. “You can’t just continue to spend money forever”.

Jan Stoffer, who used to be a teacher, disagrees. She said her husband’s comment sounds reasonable until you realize that money is being taken away from teachers, while corporations continue to make a lot of money. And she thinks it’s not just teachers – it will only get worse for all state workers.

“When they were trying to push this through, and they said, ‘Oh, don’t worry it’s not going to affect the firefighters and the police officers’. But it’s the old slippery slope. If you’re going to make that be the rule for a certain group, it’s going to trickle down to others. How can it not?"

Remember the Solidarity Singers who are still protesting in Madison? I’ll be reporting next on police officers and firefighters who were singing, too – even though these changes weren’t supposed to affect them.

*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Add your story here.