By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin unions were mobilizing Monday to fight Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to remove nearly all collective bargaining rights for public employees.
They don’t have much time.
The Legislature is moving quickly to pass the proposal, perhaps as soon as Thursday, which Walker said is needed immediately to start fixing a budget shortfall projected to be $3.6 billion by mid-2013. Without the concessions, Walker said 1,500 state workers could be laid off over the next four months to deal with an immediate $137 million budget shortfall.
Public and private sector union leaders vowed at a Monday news conference to fight Walker’s proposal.
“Make no mistake about it, war has been declared on unions in Wisconsin,” said Teamsters representative Danny McGowan. “The attack on public sector bargaining is viewed as an attack on labor, no matter what the sector.”
Unions hit the airwaves over the weekend, staged protests and organized bigger rallies at the Capitol.
University of Wisconsin-Madison students and staff planned to deliver a protest in the form of Valentine’s Day cards to Walker.
Unions representing machinists, construction workers, nurses, teachers, public workers, electricians and others all attacked Walker’s proposal Monday, saying he should bargain with workers to get the concessions he wants.
“This governor says he wants to create jobs,” said Lyle Balistreri, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades union that represents 45,000 workers. “We can do that if we work together.”
State workers have already made sacrifices to help balance the budget, through 16 unpaid furlough days and no pay increases the past two years, said Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union that represents 20,000 workers statewide.
“The fair, decent thing to do is sit down and talk to the people affected,” Beil said. “We understand the situation.”
Walker presented his ideas to Republicans who control the Legislature on Thursday, a mere seven days before it could come up for a vote. Republicans hold a 57-38-1 majority in the Assembly and a 19-14 edge in the Senate. The Legislature’s budget committee scheduled a public hearing on Tuesday with votes in the Senate and Assembly as soon as two days later.
Walker wants to end collective bargaining rights for all public employees except local police and fire departments and the state patrol. Wages could be bargained for only if they don’t exceed the consumer price index.
The bill would require nearly all state, local and school employees to pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. That would save $30 million by June 30 and $300 million over the next two years, Walker said.
The concessions would equate to about an 8 percent pay cut for the average state worker.
Walker’s proposal goes even deeper than that by no longer requiring members of collective bargaining units to pay dues, force annual votes to keep unions together, authorizing the Department of Health Services to make any changes to Medicaid regardless of current law, and selling state power plants.
Small protests sprung up over the weekend at the Capitol and governor’s mansion. Protesters also gathered outside the homes of Republican lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald in Horicon, state Rep. Samantha Kerkman in Randall and state Sen. Frank Lasee in De Pere. Fitzgerald, and his brother Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, have both signaled support for the plan.
The major unanswered question was whether enough of their colleagues would go along with the plan without making major changes.
The fight pits two of the most powerful interests in the state against one another — the statewide teachers union Wisconsin Education Association Council and the largest business lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
Teachers’ union president Mary Bell said the proposal is a direct hit on Wisconsin children and schools and is bad for education. WMC said Walker’s proposal would allow government at all levels to better manage costs, increase efficiency and ultimately improve the quality of government services.
Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, which represents more than 250,000 workers in more than 1,000 unions, launched radio and television ads on Sunday saying the plan would “take away rights of thousands of nurses, teachers and other trusted public employees.”