Public Workers in Wisconsin Protest Plan to Cut Benefits

Madison, Wis. – Thousands of public employees and supporters converged at a hearing at the capitol here that ran into the wee hours of Wednesday morning to voice their objection to a proposal to cut their benefits and remove most of their unions’ ability to bargain.

The show of anger was powerful. Madison schools were closed on Wednesday after scores of teachers called in sick and appeared headed to lobby exhausted-looking lawmakers, who had heard more than 17 hours of comments in a public hearing that began on Tuesday morning. More buses of public workers from other parts of the state were still pulling up near dawn on Wednesday.

The target of their fury was a proposal by Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican elected in November, to press through a “repair bill” that would help solve the state’s $137 million budget shortfall by requiring government workers to contribute significantly more to their pensions and health care, while limiting collective bargaining for most state and local government employees to the issue of wages, excluding an array of issues like health coverage and vacations.

With both chambers of the State Legislature dominated by Republicans after November’s election, Mr. Walker’s notion had largely drawn praise from those controlling the Legislature. Votes were expected later this week. Mr. Walker has said that he hopes to get the plan approved by next week, when he is expected to propose a new budget for the coming years that will include more sharp cuts.

Here, workers said they were frightened of what the cuts would mean for their family budgets, particularly for some workers who were already struggling. The changes call for them to pay 5.8 percent of their salary toward their pensions, much more than now, and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums, double their current contribution.

But workers also seemed worried about the broader, lasting impact of the proposed changes to the way public employee unions operate in the state.

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Aside from police and firefighters, raises for workers would be limited to the consumer price index, unless the public agreed to a higher raise in a referendum. Most unions would have to hold annual elections to keep their organizations intact and would lose the ability to have union dues deducted from state paychecks — making it more difficult, some here say, for unions to survive.

Mr. Walker, who promised during the campaign to level the playing field of benefits for public workers and private workers, has said the state’s financial circumstances require the changes.

This article “Public Workers in Wisconsin Protest Plan to Cut Benefits” originally appeared at The New York Times.

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