Public Employee Union Protests Spread From Wisconsin to Ohio

Friday, 18 Feb 2011 07:49 AM

 

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In what union leaders say is becoming a national fight, protests against legislation to restrict public employees’ collective-bargaining rights spread from Wisconsin to Ohio.

In Madison, Wisconsin, crowds that police estimated at 25,000 engulfed the Capitol and its lawns yesterday during a third-straight day of protests as Democratic senators boycotted the legislative session. In Columbus, Ohio, about 3,800 state workers, teachers and other public employees came to the statehouse for a committee hearing.

Firefighters Dave Hefflinger and Jerry Greer stood near hundreds of workers elbow-to-elbow in the Ohio statehouse atrium and listened to the Senate hearing through speakers. Chants of “Kill the bill” echoed.

“We’re here to support our brothers and sisters,” Hefflinger, a 27-year veteran, said in an interview. “They’re trying to take away what we fought for all of these years.”

Hefflinger, 49, and Greer, 39, members of the department in Findlay, Ohio, drove two hours south to protest the bill. The measure would eliminate collective bargaining for state workers, prevent local-government employees from negotiating for health insurance and replace salary schedules with merit pay.

With states facing deficits that may reach a combined $125 billion next year, Republican governors and legislatures in states including Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey are targeting changes in rules for collective bargaining and worker contributions for healthcare coverage and pensions.

Wisconsin Walkouts

In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker championed a bill that would make public workers bargain for wages alone and require them to pay 5.6 percent of their pension costs; they pay nothing now.

They would have to foot 12 percent of their healthcare premiums, up from 6 percent. Police and firefighters wouldn’t be covered by the measure, which Republican legislative leaders had hoped to pass by the weekend.

Yesterday, University of Wisconsin-Madison students walked out of classes at the urging of student government and campus newspapers and marched to the Capitol. There, they joined protesters who filled the rotunda to chant, bang drums and sing, and spilled outside.

The protesters ranged from retired autoworkers with Veterans of Foreign Wars caps to Madison high-school students whose classes were canceled for a second-straight day after nearly half of public-school teachers called in sick to protest.

“We’re here because Walker is doing the stupidest thing you could ever do,” said Clara Katz-Andrade, 15, who came to support her teachers.

‘Ideological Battle’

In a telephone interview Feb. 15, Walker said he spoke with Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich.

“Don’t blink,” Walker said when asked what advice he gave Kasich about demonstrations.

The bills are an attempt to weaken unions, said John Russo, a professor and co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

“It’s really an ideological battle that’s being fought across the country right now,” Russo said in an interview while waiting to testify before the Ohio Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee.

There were 50 witnesses scheduled, and Chairman Kevin Bacon said the committee would hear them without a break.

“This is a true test of democracy,” Bacon said.

Biggest Crowd

The Statehouse spokesman, Gregg Dodd, estimated the crowd at about 3,800 and said it was the largest gathering inside the statehouse since it was renovated in 1996.

The crowd thinned as the day wore on, but protesters continued to react vocally to comments from the committee room.

Mixing with them were members of Tea Party groups who staged their own rally in support of the legislation.

Mike Wilson, who founded the Cincinnati Tea Party, said the bill isn’t an effort to break unions but to restore balance between governments and their workers, who he said are overpaid.

“This bill is not on attack on public employees; it is not an attack on the middle class,” Wilson, 34, a technology consultant, said at the rally. “This bill is about math.”

Joe Rugola, the former president of the Ohio AFL-CIO who also is executive director of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, said he represents bus drivers and janitors who earn about $24,000 a year.

“I’m still looking for this privileged class of workers,” Rugola said in an interview while waiting to testify. “This is just part of a national attack on working people.”

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