Wisconsin schools call off classes as budget protests continue
Teachers are standing up for dignity. . . and collective bargaining.
By Phil Gast
(CNN) -- At least 15 school systems in Wisconsin canceled Thursday's classes because teachers and other public employees will continue protests at the state Capitol over a bill that would strip them of most of their collective bargaining rights and increase their contributions for benefits.
At least 10,000 employees and supporters rallied Wednesday in Madison in opposition to legislation supported by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Protesters pack the state Capitol
Classes will not be held for a second day Thursday in the Madison Metropolitan School District, said spokesman Ken Syke, because of a call by the Wisconsin Education Association Council for people to come to the Capitol on Thursday and Friday to "stand beside your neighbors, family and friends to help our voices be heard."
Syke earlier said about 40 percent of 2,600 teachers, assistants, social workers and psychologists in the bargaining unit called in sick late Tuesday, forcing the district to cancel Wednesday's classes for 24,500 students.
State workers protest in Wisconsin
* Scott Walker
School officials in Oregon, south of Madison, said they canceled classes Thursday because of anticipated staff absences.
CNN affiliate WISC listed the multiple school closings on its website.
Walker said Wednesday he is dealing with a budget crisis. Employees and unions contend his bill is an assault on worker rights.
"This is all about balancing the budget," Walker wrote on his Twitter account. "WI needs leadership."
Walker is asking legislators to pass his "Budget Repair Bill" to combat a $137 million shortfall through June 30. An upcoming two-year budget for 2011-13 must address a pending $3.6 billion deficit, he said.
Workers compare governor to Mubarak
The bill cleared the Joint Finance Committee Wednesday night on a 12-4 vote, CNN affiliate WKOW in Madison, Wisconsin, reported and can now move onto the state Senate.
In a budgetary scenario being played out in other cash-strapped states and municipalities, the legislation requires workers to cover more of their health care premiums and pension contributions, although supporters say local governments will decide on health care contribution for their employees.
The legislation also requires collective bargaining units to conduct annual votes to maintain certification. Unions would lose the right to have dues deducted from worker paychecks and collective bargaining can only cover wages.
The bill has prompted protests from public employees and supporters. On Tuesday, an estimated 13,000 people thronged Tuesday to the Capitol, followed by 10,000 Wednesday, said Carla Vigue, spokeswoman for the Department of Administration.
Crowd chants outside Capitol
Unions said the number of protesters was much higher.
"I appreciate the fact that the folks here today will have a chance to have their voices heard," Walker told reporters Wednesday. "But I want to be sure the taxpayers of Wisconsin will have their chance to have their voices heard."
"Calling this a budget bill is a smokescreen," said Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin, which represents about 17,000 employees. "This is an attack on all labor organizations."
Sign-carrying protesters jammed the Capitol rotunda on Tuesday and Wednesday, chanting "Kill the bill" and "Workers Unite." Thousands more marched outside in the snow.
The governor, who took his campaign for the bill to his Twitter account, said he was talking with some legislators about protections for workers.
Walker's press secretary, Cullen Werwie, told CNN he expects the measure to reach the Senate on Thursday and, possibly, the Assembly (lower chamber) on Friday. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans, but the legislation likely faces a tougher test in the Senate.
Under the bill, public employees in the Wisconsin Retirement System would pay about 5.8% of their salaries toward pensions, up significantly from 0.2%, Werwie said. And state workers would pay for 12.6% of their monthly health care premiums, up from between 4% and 6% percent.
Pay raises would be limited to inflation, unless a referendum approves of a larger increase.
"This is not something unusual," Walker said of the employee contributions. "That is what middle-class workers in this state have experienced."
The legislation would save the state about $30 million between now and the end of June and, if continued, an estimated $300 million during the next two years, Walker has said. He said workers in the private sector pay higher percentages of their pay for health care and pensions.
The governor visited private businesses on Tuesday, arguing the bill would end furloughs and prevent layoffs.
"People viewed what we are proposing as modest," he said.
The changes do not apply to to police, firefighters and state troopers, who would continue to bargain for their benefits.
But the proposed curtailing of most collective bargaining rights among public employees has drawn the most vocal complaints. There are about 300,000 state and local workers in the heavily unionized state.
Of 425 primary and secondary school systems, for example, employees at all but two are covered by AFT-Wisconsin or the National Education Association, Kennedy told CNN.
Walker, he claimed, is ignoring $100 million in previous employee concessions and wants to take his measure directly to a vote rather than negotiate.
Calling Wisconsin a "state in turmoil," Kennedy said the debate is "not a financial issue. It is about worker rights."
His group is calling for more rallies on Thursday to "keep the pressure on."
The website for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees featured a video of interviews with union workers.
"This is the state where collective bargaining for public employees started," one said. "If Wisconsin falls, so does the nation."
Because of the budget imbroglio, the Madison school district warned teachers that they would be docked pay if they were sick Wednesday through Friday and returned without a note from a medical provider, Syke said. They may face other sanctions.
Although Superintendent Daniel A. Nerad wrote Walker, asking him to return to the table to discuss collective bargaining, he also has said "our No. 1 responsibility is to instruct students," Syke said.
Some students left school Tuesday to join the protests, the spokesman said.
Many states, including California and New York, are grappling with budget deficit crises.
A month after Illinois lawmakers approved a massive tax hike, Gov. Pat Quinn on Wednesday unveiled a $35.4 billion budget that depends on state lawmakers approving $8.7 billion in new borrowing largely to clear a towering stack of unpaid bills.
The budget, which increases spending by $1.7 billion from the previous year and closes a $13 billion gap, slashes programs for the elderly, the poor and the disabled, but leaves education funding largely untouched. No layoffs of state workers are suggested.
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