By A. G. SULZBERGER and MONICA DAVEY
Published: February 21, 2011
JANESVILLE, Wis. — Rich Hahan worked at the General Motors plant here until it closed about two years ago. He moved to Detroit to take another G.M. job while his wife and children stayed here, but then the automaker cut more jobs. So Mr. Hahan, 50, found himself back in Janesville, collecting unemployment for a time, and watching as the city’s industrial base seemed to crumble away.
Among the top five employers here are the county, the schools and the city. And that was enough to make Mr. Hahan, a union man from a union town, a supporter of Gov. Scott Walker’s sweeping proposal to cut the benefits and collective-bargaining rights of public workers in Wisconsin, a plan that has set off a firestorm of debate and protests at the state Capitol. He says he still believes in unions, but thinks those in the public sector lead to wasteful spending because of what he sees as lavish benefits and endless negotiations.
“Something needs to be done,” he said, “and quickly.”
Across Wisconsin, residents like Mr. Hahan have fumed in recent years as tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs have vanished, and as some of the state’s best-known corporations have pressured workers to accept benefit cuts.
Wisconsin’s financial problems are not as dire as those of many other states. But a simmering resentment over those lost jobs and lost benefits in private industry — combined with the state’s history of highly polarized politics — may explain why Wisconsin, once a pioneer in supporting organized labor, has set off a debate that is spreading to other states over public workers, unions and budget woes.
There are deeply divided opinions and shifting allegiances over whether unions are helping or hurting people who have been caught in the recent economic squeeze. And workers themselves, being pitted against one another, are finding it hard to feel sympathy or offer solidarity, with their own jobs lost and their benefits and pensions cut back or cut off.
“Everyone else needs to pinch pennies and give more money to health insurance companies and pay for their own retirement,” said Cindy Kuehn as she left Jim and Judy’s Food Market in Palmyra. “It’s about time the buck stops.”
In Madison, the capital, which has become the focus of protests, many state workers and students at the University of Wisconsin predictably oppose the proposed cuts.
But away from Madison, many people said that public workers needed to share in the sacrifice that their own families have been forced to make.
The effort to weaken bargaining rights for public-sector unions has been particularly divisive, with some people questioning the need to tackle such a fundamental issue to solve the state’s budget problems.
But more often the conversation has turned to the proposals to increase public workers’ contributions to their pensions and health care, and on these issues people said they were less sympathetic, and often grew flushed and emotional telling stories of their own pay cuts and financial worries.
Here in Janesville, a city of about 60,000 an hour southeast of Madison, Crystal Watkins, a preschool teacher at a Lutheran church, said she was paid less than public school teachers and got fewer benefits. “I don’t have any of that,” she said. “But I’m there every day because I love the kids.”
In Palmyra, a small village bounded by farmland and forests, MaryKay Horter remembered how her husband’s Chevy dealership had teetered on the brink of closing after General Motors declared bankruptcy, for which she blamed unions.
Ms. Horter said she was forced to work more hours as an occupational therapist, but had not seen a raise or any retirement contributions from her employer for the last two years. All told, her family’s income has dropped by about a third.
“I don’t get to bargain in my job, either,” she said.
And in nearby Whitewater, a scenic working-class city of 15,000 that is home to a public university, Dave Bergman, the owner of a bar, was tending it himself on Sunday. He has been forced to cut staff and work seven days a week.
“There are a lot of people out of work right now that would take a job without a union,” Mr. Bergman said.
By some measures, Wisconsin, a state of 5.6 million people, has not suffered as much as other Midwestern states in the recession, according to Abdur Chowdhury, an economist at Marquette University.
Its unemployment rate, 7.5 percent in December, is lower than the nation’s. But a significant percentage of jobs lost in Wisconsin during the recession were in manufacturing, and this is a state where the proportion of the work force in manufacturing is among the nation’s highest.
Meanwhile, some of the state’s well-known companies — Harley-Davidson, Kohler, Mercury Marine — have recently sought concessions from their workers.
The battle over public workers has changed the tone in a state that prides itself on Midwestern civility. A growing number of homemade bumper stickers are popping up with messages like “Fire Them — Democrats Too.”
Among the state’s political leaders, the partisan gulf seems to have widened further. Traditionally, the state is nearly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats (along with a third group of independents) — making it a perennial battleground in presidential elections, with margins of victory that have sometimes come down to a matter of a few tenths of 1 percent. Wisconsin is the state that gave birth to government unions in the 1950s, but also to Joseph McCarthy, who railed against people he accused of being Communists.
“The Republicans are really Republicans here, and the Democrats are really Democrats, so the candidates who come out of primaries reflect that,” said Ken Goldstein, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin.
Two years after the state elected President Obama by a wide margin, it elected conservative Republicans — some of them supported by Tea Party groups — to the state legislature, the Senate and the governor’s office.
The flip has emboldened Mr. Walker, the new Republican governor who has proposed the cuts to benefits and bargaining rights, arguing that he desperately needs to bridge a deficit expected to reach $3.6 billion for the coming two-year budget.
Union leaders have said they would accept the financial terms of Mr. Walker’s proposal. The more controversial provisions, though, would strip public employees of collective-bargaining rights.
In Whitewater, Ben Penwell, a lawyer whose wife is a public employee, said he saw no reason to strip away workers’ bargaining rights if they had agreed to benefit cuts.
“They’re willing to do what’s necessary fiscally without giving up rights in the future,” he said.
And Pat Wellnitz, working in his accounting office on Sunday, wondered why such bargaining provisions were needed if the real problem was simply saving money.
“That’s pretty drastic even for a staunch Republican,” he said.
But others suggested that unions had perhaps had outlived their usefulness. Carrie Fox, who works at a billboard advertising company, said she hoped that the battle would encourage other governors to rein in public- and private-sector unions.
“I know there was a point for unions back in the day because people were being abused,” she said. “But now there’s workers’ rights; there’s laws that protect us.”
NY TIMES - Source
I like how it never occurs to some of these people that maybe instead of blaming their fellow workers, they should be asking why they don't have bargaining rights in the private sector. Maybe you need a union, son.