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The Scarlet & Black

Wisconsin Chaos hits home

By Kelsey Roebuck

On Feb 8, 2011, newly elected Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker proposed a plan that increased the amount many workers in the public sector would have to pay into their pensions and healthcare as well as end collective bargaining rights for the unions. Now, over two weeks later, the state and the Grinnellians who have called it home are reeling from the thunderous disapproval of their civil servants.

Katie Suchor ’11, forever a Wisconsin native despite her four years spent out of state, is feeling the same outrage that prompted 10,000 people to protest in Madison.

“It’s a big deal,” said Suchor. “It affects families of my friends. … It’s important. I don’t know if you noticed, it’s 70,000 people.”

Suchor’s father works for the state and is represented by the employee union. Her mother works for the local municipality. Although her father will pay 5.8% of his pay to his pension as well as at least 12.6% to healthcare (a roughly 6.6% increase), she maintains that the bill, as well as the controversy, has little to do with the state’s budget crisis.

“It’s about union busting,” Suchor said. “That’s what it’s about for everybody out there. It’s ideological, kind of, people feel that personal connection to the union. … They think it’s wrong that the Governor can come in and stomp all over that.”

The plan, which would prohibit most state workers (excluding police and firefighters) from negotiating better pensions or healthcare, has sent 14 democratic senators into Illinois, where they are avoiding a vote on anything until concessions are made.

Union leaders have suggested taking a cut in pension, health care and even pay as long as their collective bargaining rights remain intact, but Governor Walker has refused to negotiate the bill up to this point, insisting that it is necessary to counteract the state’s $3.7 billion deficit. By 2013, it would save the state $330 million, according to Walker.

Although they have not received as much attention, there are other elements to the bill that are very controversial. One such element would allow the state to avoid the bid process and sell off state-owned power plants to interested parties. Those who oppose the bill are concerned that this provision is a reward to Charles and David Koch, who own Koch Industries, a petroleum-based power corporation. The Koch Industries PAC gave $43,000 to Walker’s gubernatorial campaign.

As the state remains at a stand-off, students are making their voices heard. Protests at the University of Wisconsin-Madison loudly proclaimed that public education was worth the price, defending the professors whose benefits are targeted by the new bill. Even high school students from schools around the state walked out of class to announce their loyalty to their teachers.
Isabel Kralj and Mark Anderson ’76 are highly concerned with the state’s new direction, though the bill does not directly affect them. They, along with Anderson’s brother-in-law, a public school teacher, spent a day at the protests in the capitol.
“The protests are completely civil,” Kralj said, “and we were very impressed with the sort of feeling, the community feeling, that is there, and sort of felt quite proud of the country and the community that the protests can be that civil and that polite… it was an experience that I’m not going to forget.”
Collective bargaining rights have been in place in Wisconsin since 1959. It was the first state to guarantee those rights. Now, as those rights are threatened, the state is once more leading a trend in public sector union legislation. Ohio Governor John Kasich announced his plan to end collective bargaining rights Monday, Feb. 21. Oklahoma and Indiana legislators have also announced various forms of union reform.
“I think the country is watching to see how this turns out, and I think the way Wisconsin goes is going to affect the way other states will go,” Kralj said.

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