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Obama joins Wisconsin's budget battle, opposing Republican anti-union bill

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Thousands of public employees and their supporters gathered in Wisconsin to protest Republican Gov. Scott Walker's budget cuts. (Feb. 17)

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 18, 2011; 1:01 PM

MADISON, WIS. - President Obama thrust himself and his political operation this week into Wisconsin's broiling budget battle, mobilizing opposition Thursday to a Republican bill that would curb public-worker benefits and planning similar protests in other state capitals.

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Obama accused Scott Walker, the state's new Republican governor, of unleashing an "assault" on unions in pushing emergency legislation that would change future collective-bargaining agreements that affect most public employees, including teachers.

The president's political machine worked in close coordination Thursday with state and national union officials to get thousands of protesters to gather in Madison and to plan similar demonstrations in other state capitals.

Their efforts began to spread, as thousands of labor supporters turned out for a hearing in Columbus, Ohio, to protest a measure from Gov. John Kasich (R) that would cut collective-bargaining rights.

By the end of the day, Democratic Party officials were organizing additional demonstrations in Ohio and Indiana, where an effort is underway to trim benefits for public workers. Some union activists predicted similar protests in Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Under Walker's plan, most public workers - excluding police, firefighters and state troopers - would have to pay half of their pension costs and at least 12 percent of their health-care costs. They would lose bargaining rights for anything other than pay. Walker, who took office last month, says the emergency measure would save $300 million over the next two years to help close a $3.6 billion budget gap.

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama told a Milwaukee television reporter on Thursday, taking the unusual step of inviting a local TV station into the White House for a sit-down interview. "I think everybody's got to make some adjustments, but I think it's also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens."

The state Capitol sat mostly quiet at dawn on Friday, the calm before another day of furious protests. Scores of protestors lay sleeping in the nooks and crannies of the ornate statehouse, wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags next to piles of empty pizza boxes. They included college students, middle-aged schoolteachers and even a handful of families with their small children.

Room 328, a cramped hearing space where members of the public can speak on the budget bill, was packed full of eager but bleary-eyed protestors. One after another, the speakers used their two minutes to blast Walker's measure, sometimes looking straight into a local television camera that was broadcasting the proceedings.

"We are the people and our voices must be heard!" one woman said.

The proceedings showed little sign of slowing. By 6:45 a.m., those who had signed up to speak five hours earlier were finally getting their chance.

"We are so thrilled you are here," said Rep. Janis Ringhand, a Democratic state assembly member from Evansville who was moderating the hearing. "We know we are outnumbered as far as votes, but it could be you who makes the difference."


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