BY JACKIE CLEWS, LAUREL PATRICK AND KIRSTEN ADSHEAD FOR WISCONSIN REPORTER – MADISON — One week into what experts say is a debate of historic proportions in Wisconsin, the bottom line is becoming clear.
The battle over Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill isn’t about this year’s $137 million deficit or the $3.6 billion looming in the upcoming biennium. It’s about fundamentals: Who gets what, how, and who pays for it?
It’s a question fundamental enough to draw national attention Friday, with conservatives throughout the country rallying around Walker and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka standing by union supporters at the Capitol.
“There’s numerous other states that are also broke, and they are also looking at Wisconsin to see what we do and then follow suit — either we get some (give) back from employees or there will be massive layoffs — and that doesn’t help anyone,” said Orville Seymer, field operations director for Citizens for Responsible Government. “We’re not opposing unions.”
Citizens for Responsible Government is a conservative political group based in Wisconsin.
Protesters say their action is not about money, but about their right to have a voice in the bargaining process.
“Imagine what the country would be like if there were no labor unions,” the AFL-CIO’s Trumka said to the masses gathered Friday at the Capitol. “Imagine the unfettered playing field in corporate America, which is already too powerful, would have without us. That’s what this is about.”
It’s a fundamental battle, in particular, for Wisconsin, which, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau, in 1959 became the first state to enact collective bargaining rights for state workers.
During the five decades since, there have been heated debates, such as when Gov. Tommy Thompson successfully pushed for the Qualified Economic Offer, which provided for salary caps for teachers.
But there’s been nothing like this.
Since state employees gained the right to unionize in the 1970s, the existence of unions “was a settled issue,” taken for granted, University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Walker said.
“I think it’s that change in the rules of the game that is the most powerful motivation for the tens of thousands of people converging upon the Capitol,” he said.
Walker says public unions have been getting a pretty good deal, one the state simply can no longer afford.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds, in the past 10 years, taxpayers contributed more than $8 billion to health care coverage for state workers, while the employees put in a total of $398 million.
According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau:
- Public employers contributed almost $1.37 billion to the state’s pension fund in 2009, while employees contributed about $8 million, or about 0.6 percent.
- From 2000 to 2009, taxpayers spent about $12.6 billion on public employee pensions. During the same period, public employees contributed $55.4 million.
“To the workers I talk to around the state, and continue to hear from even today, they think that’s a deal they’d love to have,” Walker said Friday during a news conference.
In addition to limiting collective bargaining on everything but wages, Walker’s budget repair bill would require state employees to contribute 12.6 percent to their health care and 5.8 percent to their pensions.
A policy memo was released earlier this week by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., that compared Wisconsin public and private employee costs. It concluded that comparing public and private employee is like comparing “apples to oranges”.
The report states that:
- “When we compare apples to apples,” Wisconsin public employees earn 4.8 percent less in total compensation than comparable private sector workers.
- Wisconsin public employees receive “considerably better” benefits than their private sector counterparts.
- Public employees earn lower wages and get less in total compensation, including benefits, than comparable private sector employees.
The Economic Policy Institute is a progressive nonprofit think tank that focuses on economic policy and the interests of low- and middle-income workers. Its board of directors is dominated by union representatives including Trumka, Andrew Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, and Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.
The debate will likely continue to rage on. Competing rallies planned by Walker supporters and union backers are scheduled to be held Saturday at the Capitol.