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Madison protests bring union backers together

Thousands of union supporters converged on the Wisconsin State Capitol Wednesday to protest Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill as hundreds more made their anger heard in communities around the state while the governor's supporters sought to defend the measure.

Several teachers from the New Richmond area were among the Wednesday crowd.

Even more union supporters are expected for protests at the capitol Thursday.

Kyle Smith, a teacher at Superior High School, drove to Madison to join the statewide protest, describing the spectacle that topped national news reports as "amazing, emotional, crazy."

Jim Mattson, a resident of Poplar in the northwest corner of the state and a representative of AFSCME Council 40, which represents government employees in Bayfield, Ashland, Douglas and Sawyer counties, called the noise in the packed Rotunda deafening and said the streets around the Capitol were filled with protestors.

"I've never seen organized labor as organized as it is now," he said. "Madison is ground zero."

Back in Superior, union workers and their neighbors marched up Hammond Avenue, dodging puddles and holding up signs reading "Kill the Bill," "Stop and Think," "Save our State," and "We are all in this together. Let's talk."

"We stand here as a community," first-grade teacher Kim Kolhaas , vice president of the Superior Federation of Teachers, said in front of the Douglas County Courthouse. "We live here, we work here, we spend our money here and this bill affects all of us."

Introduced by the new Republican governor last Friday, the bill would effectively strip collective bargaining rights from most public employees. While the governor has presented the bill as necessary to close a $137 million deficit in the budget year that ends June 30, its effects would be felt for years to come.

* Unions would be prevented from negotiating anything but salaries -- and any increase greater than the rate of inflation would require voter approval in a referendum.

* Union dues couldn't be collected by school districts or state and local governments. No one could be required to pay union dues.

* Contracts could be for no more than one year, and bargaining units would have to vote annually on maintaining certification as a union.

* Most workers would have to make half the annual contribution into their pension, and would have to pay at least 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums.

* The plan wouldn't apply to police, state trooper or firefighter unions.

The bill could reach the Senate and House for a vote before the end of the week, where the Republican majority is poised to pass it. Among them is state Rep. Dean Knudson of Hudson .

"There is a huge budget deficit. And there are no games or gimmicks or stimulus money or anything that is going to come and bail us out of this," Knudson said in a visit to the Hudson Star-Observer office Monday, defending the plan as the only alternative to increasing taxes or layoffs of government workers and teachers.

"If we don't do something that is a broad reform of this relationship with public employees, then we're looking at cuts to programs and services on an unprecedented scale. Nobody wants to do that," he said.

Knudson said that if the changes in public employee compensation aren't enacted, 5,000 to 6,000 state employees and at least that many local government workers would have to be laid off to balance the 2011-13 budget.

What's coming next, probably in about 10 days, he said, is the announcement of cuts in state aid and shared revenue to school districts and local governments.

He said he expects the reduction in state aid to be about equal to the employee cost savings.

"To handle the kind of cuts that will be coming without adopting these cuts, that would be brutal," he said. "This is painful, but it is not painful on the scale of what it would be like to deal with this deficit without these changes."

Knudson said he personally disagreed with the provision in the governor's bill exempting police officers from being required to pay for half of their pensions and at least 12 percent of their health insurance premiums , but he still defended the governor's action.

"At this point in time, the decision was made that they are frontline providers of emergency services and because of that they are exempted," he said.

Scott Ellingson, leader of the Hudson teachers' bargaining unit, called the budget repair bill a "blatant attack on workers' rights."

"Hopefully, others recognize that this would be devastating to Wisconsin public schools and Wisconsin workers -- and Wisconsin and the community of Hudson, frankly," Ellingson told the Star-Observer.

He said the most objectionable part of the bill was the undermining of public employee unions.

"We all understand we're in tough times and if we were to be able to sit down with Gov. Walker, I'm sure we could talk about things and probably come to some agreement," he said.

Ellingson said teachers were prepared to make concessions on pay, health insurance and pensions, but Walker has refused to talk to them or the state employee unions.

"We're very willing and motivated to talk. I think it's a far better way to do it than going for the jugular like this," Ellingson said. "I don't think he was elected to undermine public education in this fashion and attack workers' rights."

He was especially critical of taking away teachers' right to things like class sizes and working conditions.

"The big thing I would really stress is, what kind of state will we be left with?" Ellingson asked. "What kind of schools will we have? What kind of teachers will ever want to teach in Wisconsin -- especially new teachers? Do we really want to become a state that doesn't have rights for workers, with corresponding lower test scores and lower quality of life?"

The district's more than 350 teachers would lose an average of nearly $3,000 in annual pay, about $1 million in total. The district's 300 non-union employees would lose about $500,000 in annual compensation, Ellingson said.

The liberal Institute for Wisconsin's Future released a report on Monday estimating that the cuts in take-home pay for some 343,000 teachers and state and local government employees will cost the state $1.1 billion in reduced annual economic activity.

The governor's office countered with a fact sheet saying that taxpayer contributions to state employee health insurance premiums grew from $423 million in 2001 to more than $1 billion in 2011.

From 2000 to 2009, taxpayers spent about $12.6 billion on public employee pensions, while public employees contributed $55.4 million, according to the governor's office.

In Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio, public employees pay half of the annual contributions to their pension plans, the fact sheet says.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, announced Tuesday morning that they had to votes to pass the bill.

The governor raised eyebrows recently by appointing the Fitzgeralds' father, 68-year-old Stephen Fitzgerald, head of the Wisconsin State Patrol.

Like police officers, Superior Firefighter Suzi Olson would be exempt from the bill. But she nonetheless marched down Hammond Avenue to join the Superior rally and stand up for her fellow public employees, saying she has no doubt they will soon be facing the same fate.

"I don't trust this man at all," she said of Walker. "He's going to pay the price for what we do," she said.