Feeling backed into a corner by Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees, thousands of public and private union workers filled the state Capitol and surrounded the square Tuesday.
Those who arrived early delivered several hours of testimony to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. But most people — ushered away from the packed hearing room by security — lifted their voices and signs in demonstration, chanting, “Kill the bill!” and keeping warm outside to the music of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
Nearby office workers peered down from windows at the massive sea of people, and others took turns climbing a 10-foot-tall snow bank on State Street to get a better view.
Although Madison assumed a carnival-like atmosphere, protestors — ranging from teachers to ironworkers — made it clear they were in town for business.
Public employees strongly oppose Walker’s plan, which would require them to pay half the cost of their pensions and 12 percent of their health insurance premiums.
But Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch testified to the Joint Finance Committee that additional contributions from state workers are necessary.
“These changes will save $30 million during the remaining few months of this fiscal year, and $300 million during the next biennium,” Huebsch said. “To achieve these savings without the benefit changes, thousands of state employees would have to be laid off.”
If Walker’s budget repair bill passes, unions would retain leverage to negotiate salaries, but not benefits.
“Private sector workers took on higher health care and pension contributions as the economy faltered,” Huebsch said, “and it is fair that government employees now do the same.”
But private sector workers expressed fear Walker would focus on their unions next, while public employees began considering new careers or retirement.
“We’re not gonna sit back and act like they’re not attacking our private sector, so it’s not our problem,” said Anthony Anastasi, a member of Madison Iron Workers Local 383. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve got three kids and a wife, and I wouldn’t be able to afford to live in this state anymore if they took away my right to bargain.”
Mark Klipstein, a project manager for the state Department of Transportation and president of the State Engineering Association, said passage of Walker’s bill would ignite an exodus of state workers who would turn toward the private sector.
In fact, Klipstein added, the move already is under way.
“Just in the last two weeks, we lost another project leader going to the private sector,” he said. “We’ve had a slow, but steady flow of people leaving.
“These are the people you’re losing — the best people, the most experienced and most marketable.”
While not all public workers would find plentiful job opportunities, Klipstein, an engineer with more than 20 years of experience, said that’s not a concern in his profession.
“‘I’m very marketable,” he said. “Could I get a job if I left? I think I could get a job in a second.”
But Huebsch testified that Wisconsin’s employees already are better off than they would be at private companies. Public workers, Huebsch said, would retain great benefits and reclaim 3 percent of their income that was lost under former Gov. Jim Doyle’s mandated furlough days.
During the nonstop public hearing, most speakers opposed the budget repair bill and the tone among legislators became testy at times.
Responding to Republicans who declined to allow speakers more than 2 minutes of testimony, Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said, “I respect that you want to rush the process. I respect that you want to trample on people asking to have a voice.”
Outside the hearing room, though, people’s voices echoed through the Capitol and the city. While Republicans from both the Senate and Assembly said they have enough votes to pass Walker’s bill, thousands of union workers said lawmakers better not forget about their votes.
“We’re all here as one. Solidarity is the No. 1 thing right now,” Anastasi said. “It doesn’t seem like that bad of a thing to sit down at a table and bargain.”