Local politicians, union officials watching Wisconsin protests

  • Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers mass at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Friday.

    Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers mass at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Friday. Associated Press

  • Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers mass outside the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Friday.

    Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers mass outside the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Friday. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 2/20/2011 3:52 PM

Local union members and state politicians at both ends of the spectrum are watching the protests in Madison, Wis., with a vested interest.

If the prevailing attitude is "it can't happen here," not with Gov. Pat Quinn at the helm and Democrats in control of the General Assembly, it's also an acknowledged possibility that something similar could.

 

"What's at stake in Madison is the basic right of working people to have a voice," contends Anders Lindall, Chicago spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "I don't think that we have the same dynamic in Illinois, where that type of total assault, on such a basic right, would be tolerated."

"I don't know that you'll see anything like that anytime soon," added state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican. "Although there are frankly bipartisan discussions right now about current employment benefits."

Murphy said in Illinois the battleground is over needed reforms to "a pension system that is largely underfunded" for government employees, from teachers to police officers to firefighters to health care providers to, yes, former politicians.

If the General Assembly were to impose major changes on their pensions, he said, "I would imagine you'd see a similar reaction here."

Protests swelled to 40,000 in Madison as state workers continued to fight attempts by Republican Gov. Scott Walker to impose concessions, including major changes to collective bargaining. Many schools closed, with teachers calling in sick to join the protests, including the state's largest district in Milwaukee.

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Senate Democrats abandoned the state entirely -- many south to Illinois -- to deny Republicans a quorum, bringing legislative business to a halt.

Murphy, meanwhile, acknowledged he is co-sponsor of an Illinois bill that would call on government employees to either move into the new retirement system for government employees hired this year -- where, among other things, they must wait longer to retire with full pensions -- or pay more to remain in the old pension system.

Lindall said it was the same battle against unions, just being fought over the right to collective bargaining in Wisconsin and statewide pension "reform" here. "There's no question about it," he said. "It's a concerted effort by the corporate elite and the political right wing to smash public-sector unions in particular.

"It's a vision of the Wal-Martization of public services. It is the same dynamic, and what's happening in Wisconsin is that attack on steroids."

Lindall said it was bad enough here, where the average retired state worker collects a $22,000 annual pension, and where eight of 10 state workers are ineligible for Social Security, including schoolteachers.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's not extravagant, and it's certainly not a driving force behind our budget crisis," Lindall said.

Yet, he said, beginning with last year's measure to create the new retirement system for new employees, the anti-union campaign had been "successful" at taking "real public concern about the state's fiscal crisis and legitimate public anger at pension abuses by elected officials and top managers to game the system, and misdirecting, sowing confusion and diverting public anger at rank-and-file public-service workers."

Murphy said he's heard from his constituents, especially schoolteachers, to just that end.

"It certainly brings about a pretty strong reaction, obviously," he said. "It's a difficult issue because you're trying to balance keeping promises with being realistic about what you're going to be able to provide. They're difficult challenges, to say the least, that bring a lot of emotion with them."

He insisted, however, he was pursuing his bill, and claimed House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, was amenable.

Charlie McBarron, director of communications with the Illinois Education Association, said Madigan signaled as much in remarks after Gov. Quinn's budget address this week. "There's a serious threat coming our way," McBarron said. "Probably sooner rather than later."

He added, however, that Senate President John Cullerton, also a Chicago Democrat, had made it clear he considered altering those pension plans to be unconstitutional.

"That's our position as well," McBarron said. That was echoed by AFSCME's Lindall, who added that health care for government retirees was also something many legislators were trying to chip away at.

In a statement, Cullerton said he was looking for union input on "how to maximize our resources and cut back on outdated and unnecessary services and spending," but making clear he wanted just that -- union input.

"The vilification of public-sector employees needs to stop. These are the people who teach our children, guard our worst criminals and protect our public health and safety," Cullerton said. "Their rights shouldn't be bulldozed for political gain."

All sides were monitoring the situation in Madison, for their own reasons, and the unions were regarding it as a fight to be joined. "We're watching very carefully," McBarron said. "We care very much about our colleagues in Wisconsin. There are people from our staff who have gone up there to try to help."

"Lots of our rank-and-file members and our local activists and our staff and our retired staff are traveling up there of their own volition on days off or taking time off," Lindall said.

Gov. Quinn, too, was scheduled to go to Wisconsin on Monday, but to pay off his bet with Gov. Walker for the Bears' NFL playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. Quinn was set to go to Milwaukee, thus skirting the protests in Madison.

• Daily Herald staff writer Mike Riopell contributed to this story.