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Governor vs. unions sets tempers boiling in Wisconsin

School districts in Wisconsin canceled classes Thursday, protesters swarmed the Capitol building and police were dispatched to find state lawmakers who were boycotting a vote on the bill that's a source of public turmoil there.

The measure is what some are calling a "union busting" move by Wisconsin's new Republican governor, Scott Walker, who announced legislation that would limit public employee rights and alter how the state negotiates with unions.

An article in the New York Times said that his proposal to raise public employees' contributions to their pensions and to their health insurance premiums, without allowing them collective bargaining rights over any issue but salary, could amount to a 7 percent pay cut.

State officials last Friday told the Wisconsin State Employees Union that expired collective bargaining agreements would be canceled March 13. According to the Wisconsin State Journal article, "state unions have been operating under the terms of their previous contracts, an arrangement that can be terminated with 30 days' notice." Apparently that was the notice.

Walker's "budget repair bill," the article says, "would remove nearly all collective bargaining rights for nearly all public employees in the state and make it easier for employers to fire workers that engage in some form of labor unrest."

The response, which has been building, included mass rallies by teachers and other unions, condemnation from the AFL-CIO and public demonstrations.

This is a fiery example of a growing issue. For example, The Economist offers this broad take on the growing tensions between new economic realities and unions:

"Lots of states, faced with swelling pension and health-care costs and yawning deficits, are seeking to curb public-sector pay and benefits. A few are going further by trying to trim the power of the unions that defend civil servants' wages," it says. "This week Ohio's Legislature took up a measure similar to the one being pushed by Mr. Walker in Wisconsin, denying state and local employees collective-bargaining rights. A bill before the Florida Senate would prevent the state from deducting union dues from salaries, and make it harder for unions to spend money electioneering. As it is, many states already limit collective bargaining by public employees in one way or another; and North Carolina, Texas and Virginia ban it altogether."

In Wisconsin, Walker has said his proposed changes are needed because the state is $137 million in the hole for this budget year and is projected to have a $3.6 billion shortfall for its upcoming biennial budget.

Walker's proposal would allow collective negotiation only over salary, not pensions and insurance rates, among other things. Such a move could allow the state to raise pension contributions to 5.8 percent of salary and more than double what employees contribute to their health insurance premiums.

By mid-morning Thursday, WSJ was reporting that opponents of Walker's efforts reacted swiftly. The state's largest teachers' union called 98,000 members to attend rallies Thursday and Friday. That, in turn, led to the school closures by the districts.

It's a global issue that's not going anywhere soon, as long as money's tight and needs exist, pundits agree.

Notes the Economist, "Look around the world and the forces are massing. On one side are Californian prison guards, British policemen, French railworkers, Greek civil servants, and teachers just about everywhere. On the other stand the cash-strapped governments of the rich world. Even the mere mention of cuts has brought public-sector workers onto the streets across Europe. When those plans are put into action, expect much worse."

But it also suggests that "the struggle with public-sector unions should be about productivity and parity, not just spending cuts."

e-mail: lois@desnews.com