Wisconsin Legislature Shuts Down Comment Line After Too Many Complaints
The protesters amassed outside the state capitol in Madison, WI and their supporters across the country have succeeded in getting state Republicans to back down on at least one front: the toll-free Legislative Hotline that the legislature has kept open 24 hours a day for more than 20 years.
After a flood of calls that legislative staff tell TPM came from "unions and other non-profits," the legislature's Sergeant at Arms ordered the number disconnected Friday, a move that according to sources could save the state quite a bit of money as the protests against Gov. Scott Walker's (R) union-busting budget plan rage.
One union source said he didn't know about the call flooding, but he said that Republicans have another think coming if they believe taking down a phone number will silence the frustrated union supporters with their eyes on Madison this week.
During business hours, the Legislative Hotline is answered by a real person, a longtime staffer in the Sergeant at Arms office told me. Normally, people call to ask who their legislator is and how to contact him or her -- usually so the caller can complain about something the state government's up to.
The Hotline doesn't take the complaint -- it merely helps constituents find the right politician to complain to (or, in what is likely much more rare instances, offer a compliment to).
Each call to the toll-free line costs the state 10 cents, the staffer told me. And once Walker's budget proposal became news, the calls starting pouring in nonstop. Once the phone was hung up, it would ring again. Hundreds and hundreds of calls, every hour -- even at 3 AM, when the Hotline transfers to voicemail.
But cutting off the line during the height of the protest, the argument goes, the state will save a ton. The Sergeant at Arms' office blamed the calls on an organized system run by union or pro-union advocacy group. The office told TPM that a system set up by the group allowed callers to "press one to speak to their Representative" which would then in turn ring the legislative line.
This is not the first time the Hotline has been flooded with calls. As one long-time legislative staffer told me, "there are always controversial bills in Madison." But this time the call volume was so high, legislative staff said, that the line had to be cut off. It's he first time in the more than 20 years the line's been open that the Sergeant at Arms had it disconnected, according to staff in Madison.
A spokesperson for the AFL-CIO told TPM that he didn't know of any scheme to direct calls to the Legislative Hotline, and he suggested such a plan didn't really make sense as legislators in Wisconsin would probably only care about calls that came from people in Wisconsin, not national complaints from people forwarded to them by an outside group.
"And that's why their offices have been swamped with tens of thousands of people, letters, phone calls and emails because the people of Wisconsin oppose this radical attack," AFL-CIO Political Communications Director Eddie Vale said.
The Republicans in control of both Houses of the legislature "can turn off their phones, they can put their fingers in their ears and stamp their feet, but the voices of the men and women of Wisconsin will be heard," Vale added.
"We Have a Fire in the House of Labor. We Are Here to Put it Out": Wisconsin Firefighters and Police Officers Join Massive Protests Against Anti-Union Bill
In the largest rally yet, an estimated 80,000 people protested in Madison on Saturday against a "budget repair" bill that would strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights. The state’s Democratic Senators—who have fled the state to stall a vote on the bill—sent a letter to Gov. Scott Walker on Friday telling him labor would accept cuts to pensions and increased contributions to health and retirement plans if he would negotiate on collective bargaining. The cuts Walker has proposed in a sweeping budget bill would exclude public safety workers like police, state troopers and firefighters, but this does not mean they are in support of the legislation. To discuss this further, we are joined by Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association. “An assault on one is an assault on all,” Mitchell says. “As firefighters and police officers, we do not sit idly by. We make things happen.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: The political storm over worker’s rights in Wisconsin has entered its seventh day. In the largest rally yet, an estimated 80,000 protesters rallied in Madison, Wisconsin on Saturday against cuts to their collective bargaining rights that have been proposed by Republican Governor Scott Walker. Several thousand supporters of the bill also rallied in Madison on Saturday during a much smaller event organized by the Tea Party and backed by the Koch brothers, among others. The state’s democratic Senators–now calling themselves the Wisconsin 14–sent a letter to Governor Walker on Friday telling him labor would accept cuts to pensions and increased contributions to health and retirement plans. But Walker has refused to meet and says he will not negotiate on cuts to collective bargaining rights.
The cuts Walker has proposed would exclude public safety workers like police, state troopers and firefighters. But that doesn’t mean they’ve gone along with the legislation. To discuss this further we’re joined by Mahlon Mitchell, he is the President of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighers Association. Welcome to Democracy Now! So you’re not included, you are not a target of Governor Walker, but you are standing there with all of the teachers and the other workers in Wisconsin who are protesting in Madison. Why?
MAHLON MITCHELL: Well, we as firefighters we could’ve stood idly by because as you said, we are exempt from the legislation, the budget repair bill as well as cops and state troopers. We could have stood idly by, sat on our hands and did nothing and told them that was there fight and we weren’t going to deal with that. After talking with my membership and talking with the leaders of our union we decided we had to act, because an assault on one is an assault on all. As firefighters and police officers, we don’t sit idly by and let things happen. We make things happen. If there is a fire in a house, we go in and put the fire out, when people are running out we are running in. Now we have a fire in the house of labor, there’s a fire in our house and we are going to put that fire out. And if it does fall, it does crumble, we will be with our brothers and sisters to help rebuild it.
AMY GOODMAN: Why were you exempted? Some are suggesting the police, the firefighters, these were the unions that supported Governor Walker. Is that right? And he was going after those that did not support him?
MAHLON MITCHELL: Well actually Amy, that is not entirely true. That is one misconception that is out there. The unions that supported Governor Walker were the Milwaukee Police-Fire union which we do not represent, as well as the Milwaukee Police Association, who the Wisconsin Police Association does not representent. We actually- the professional firefighters of Wisconsin and the WPPA the Wisconsin Professional Police Officers Association, we backed Tom Barrett, who was the mayor of Milwaukee, and was governor Walker’s opponent. Now the reason that I believe we were exempt, and in Governor Walker’s defense, he has always said in his campaign he views public safety as different. He views public safety employees have unique jobs and unqiue responsibilities and that is why we believe that is why we were exempted.
Now we didn’t ask for this favor. We need to come together as brothers and sisters and get the job done. We- when Governor Walker was campaigning, going around, he did ask for the 5.8 health insurance I am sorry, 5.8% pension pay-in, as well as the health care insurance preimum benefit. He never, ever campaigned and said he wanted to get rid of collective bargain and decertify certain unions across the state. Thats the problem we have. So we as firefighters and police are coming back hey lets bargain, lets sit down at the table and collectively bargain and get this job done. We don’t want to price ourselves out of the job, we realize that. We want to make sure our other brothers and sisters have jobs, we don’t want mass layoffs. We are saying, as firefighters and police, we are willing to concede, even though you are telling us you don’t have to, to give 5.8% pension and 12.8% into our healthcare insurance to help save the collective bargaining agreement that we have had for 75 years in the state of Wisconsin.
I think that we have to be clear, that this is not just an attack on unions, this is an attack on the middle-class. We have over 200,000 public sector employees in the state of Wisconsin. There’s jobs, there’s families, that’s 200,000 employees. Now think about their wives and children, you could throw another 100,000 on top of that. This is a clear attack on the rights the middle-class has to talk to their employers about hours, wages and working conditions. We just cannot stand by and let that happen.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 10 seconds to go. But clearly, this is not about the budget any more, becuase the unions have said they will concede on these points. So what is this about? 10 seconds.
MAHLON MITCHELL: Amy, well, this is a clear attack on collective bargaining and also to help the election process, I believe. To deceritfy unions and to get rid of the unions makes the middle class less strong.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, Mahlon Mitchell of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighers Association in Madison, Wisconsin.