By Chris Stirewalt
Published February 18, 2011 | FoxNews.com
Democrats and Unions Badger GOP in Wisconsin
“I’ve said all along the thousands of people who are storming the capitol have every right to be heard, but I’m not going to let them overshadow the voices of the millions of taxpayers in the state of Wisconsin who deserve to be heard, as well.”
Union protesters and Democrat lawmakers will attempt to prevent for a second day a vote in the Wisconsin Senate that would increase public employees’ contributions to retirement and health benefits and strip unions of the power to bargain for higher salaries.
The battle in Madison has become the epicenter of a national fight between newly empowered small-government conservatives and Democrats backed by government worker unions.
The grassroots political operation of President Obama, who on Wednesday denounced the austerity legislation as an “attack on unions,” has swung in behind the government workers. Organizing for America, the activist organizing wing of the Democratic National Committee is helping keep the pressure on Republican lawmakers who plan to pass the legislation today.
Members of the Service Employees International Union, the most influential union in national Democratic circles, have also joined the fray in support of the government workers. The SEIU is helping man an around-the-clock occupation of the central halls of the state capital.
Tea Party groups, meanwhile, have planned a counter demonstration for Saturday at the capitol in support of the measure, raising the prospect of a clash between the activist groups.
Thousands of union activists have tried to shut down the process at the statehouse, which swung to the GOP in the 2010 elections. The efforts to block access to the state Senate and disrupt debates have been described as “mostly peaceful,” though union groups have expanded their protests to the homes of individual lawmakers.
Nine protesters have been arrested so far for disorderly conduct.
The holdup in the vote is due to the fact that the Democratic members of the Senate are on the lam, denying Republicans a quorum and the chance to vote. The Democrats are holed up at a resort just across the Illinois border, putting them beyond the reach of Wisconsin law enforcement agencies that could otherwise compel at least one Democrat to appear in the Senate so a vote could take place.
So far, the hideout seems to be backfiring. Moderate Republicans who had been on the fence over the legislation are denouncing the shutdown as undemocratic.
The lower chamber of the legislature may take up the bill today if Senate Democrats remain in hiding.
The measure would increase the contributions of public employees to their own retirement and medical benefits. The plan, put forward by new Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wisc., would have public workers make equal contributions to their retirement funds (teachers currently contribute $1 for every $56.94 from the state) and increase workers’ share of health insurance premiums to 12.6 percent. Teachers in most districts currently pay less than 5 percent of their insurance costs. The national average for workers is 27 percent.
While the increased contributions are a sore spot, the greatest anger among demonstrators is over the portion of the bill that would strip public workers of the right to bargain for higher wages, benefits and changes to job duties. Pay raises for public workers would be subject to voter approval. Under the law, the state would also stop withholding union dues from government paychecks and make due payments strictly voluntary.
There are similar measures under consideration around the nation, including in Ohio where protests are picking up steam.
National Democrats and their labor allies are hoping to cause maximum political damage with the increasingly likely passage of the measure in an effort to discourage other states and congressional Republicans from moving to crack down on government unions.