Labor & Work-Life Issues

With Unions Under Threat, Academics Join Huge Rally in Wisconsin

Andy Manis, AP Images

U. of Wisconsin employees and students were among the state workers who thronged the State Capitol in Madison on Tuesday to protest legislation that would end or curtail their collective-bargaining rights and increase the share workers pay for benefits.
February 15, 2011

Thousands of protesters gathered on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol here on Tuesday to voice their opposition to a fast-moving proposal that would strip the union bargaining rights for University of Wisconsin faculty and staff members, while almost eliminating bargaining rights for nearly all other state workers, including graduate students.

Chanting "We're not gonna take it," throngs of state employees and their supporters rallied for more than two hours on snow-covered grounds, before moving their protests inside the Capitol, in defiance of Gov. Scott Walker's "budget repair" bill. Apart from undoing hard-fought 2009 legislation that gave university faculty authorization to unionize, the bill would cut employee retirement and health benefits.

The Republican governor and his supporters say the sweeping proposal will close the state's current $137-million budget shortfall, while beginning to shrink a projected $3.6-billion gap for the next biennium. Opponents, however, describe the plan as an unabashed ideological effort to cripple unions in a state with a strong history of organized labor.

Students and professors alike expressed concerns Tuesday that deteriorating bargaining powers, coupled with reduced benefits, would hamper faculty retention.

"It's a shock for Wisconsin, because we're known for education," said Jessica Scholl, a student at the University of Wisconsin's Eau Claire campus.

Apart from stripping collective-bargaining powers, the bill would require state workers to increase contributions to their pensions to 5.8 percent of their salaries, whereas some now pay nothing at all, according to state officials. Workers' contribution toward health insurance would also be doubled, to 12.6 percent of the monthly premiums.

Ms. Scholl was accompanied by several classmates, all of whom hoisted protest signs under the Capitol dome. Ms. Scholl's sign read "Walker is a college dropout. Scary, right?" The dig at the governor refers to his stint at Marquette University, which he attended before taking a job in marketing and development with the American Red Cross. Mr. Walker's lack of a college degree has fueled critics who see his proposal as an attack on education.

Mr. Walker declined an interview request made through his news-media office.

Faculty protesters said they feared the fledgling unionization movement on Wisconsin's college campuses could be stopped in its tracks by the governor's legislation, which many expect to pass as early as Thursday.

Unions have thus far been recognized on two University of Wisconsin campuses, Eau Claire and Superior. Elections have also been requested by faculty members on four other campuses, including La Crosse, River Falls, Stevens Point, and Stout.

The Madison campus, which is the state's flagship, has not moved actively toward unionization. But Chancellor Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin expressed some concerns about the bill in a statement released on Monday, saying she was concerned about the financial costs to employees who are already taking a hit from furloughs. "Proposed changes of this magnitude and reach are bound to create enormous stress and strong reaction," she said. "In such an environment, I worry about everyone."

At the same time, Ms. Martin did not downplay the fiscal realities facing the state.

"As you know, I have been saying for months that I believe the problems Governor Walker seeks to solve are genuine problems and serious ones," she said. "They are not confined to the state of Wisconsin. They are national in scope. Indeed, they go well beyond national borders. Different states are taking different approaches to them. Virtually every public university in the country is being cut as a result of huge state budget deficits."

Plea to a Key Senator

While not unionized, faculty on the University of Wisconsin's Oshkosh campus made their voices heard at the protest. About a dozen professors took their concerns directly to Sen. Michael Ellis, a Republican who is president of the State Senate.

Senator Ellis has publicly stated that there are enough Republican votes to pass Governor Walker's plan, but he appeared exasperated and disappointed in his brief meeting with the Oshkosh faculty members.

"I'm not going to suggest for one minute that you're going to be happy when this is over, and I don't blame you one bit," he said. "We are trying to ameliorate the drastic aspects of this as best we can."

In what seemed a candid discussion about the legislation, Mr. Ellis said he believed budget holes could be plugged without effectively dismantling unions in the state. At the same time, he said he believed as many as 20,000 workers would be laid off if some version of the plan was not passed. Given the option of extensive layoffs or scaling back collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin, Mr. Ellis said he'd begrudgingly back the bill.

"I am not going to dump my friends on the sidewalk without a job," said Mr. Ellis, who was sporting smoky aviator glasses and a black fleece vest.

At one point during the meeting with Mr. Ellis, a graduate student grew teary-eyed describing the potential demise of unionization in Wisconsin. Peter Rickman, a member of the Teaching Assistants' Association and a graduate student in law and public affairs at the Madison campus, said he'd grown up in a family that relied upon collective bargaining to maintain a middle-class existence.

Asked for his reaction after the meeting, Mr. Rickman said, "I feel like I've been kicked."

Unlike University of Wisconsin faculty and staff, who secured unionization rights only in 2009, teaching assistants have for decades been considered state employees and therefore would not be completely denied collective-bargaining rights under the plan. Even so, they, like other unionized state employees, would lose the power to negotiate all but base wages. Benefits such as health care and "just cause" protections against arbitrary discipline would be among the standard bargaining areas no longer up for negotiation, said Timothy E. Hawks, a lawyer who has represented the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, with which some campus unions are affiliated, since 1983.

The restrictions on state employees, including teaching assistants, are effectively "designed to make a union fail," Mr. Hawks said. If the measure is enacted as proposed, "the faculty and academic staff have lost everything," he said. "But in reality so has every other public sector union."

Well after the majority of protesters had left the Capitol grounds, several hundred stayed well into the night demanding to be heard by exhausted lawmakers who were holding a public hearing on the bill. As late as 9:30 p.m., dozens of young people, many of them identifying themselves as college students, were standing on a staircase, yelling, "No one leaves."