"Solidarity" was the watchword as Wisconsin labor leaders gathered at the Concourse Hotel on Monday, registering opposition to the budget-repair bill announced by Gov. Scott Walker on Feb. 11. Arranged by the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, the press conference included representatives of both public and private unions, who used strong words such us "assault on the middle class" and "punishing workers" in describing Walker's proposal.
The budget-repair bill would strip most public employees of most of their collective-bargaining rights, increase the amount they pay to their health care and pensions, and allow them to opt out of joining unions. The labor leaders decried the fact that Walker acted unilaterally, without consulting the people who would be affected.
"He calls unions unreasonable while making no attempt to talk to the unions," said Marty Beil, executive director of AFSCME Council 24.
The dozen labor leaders who spoke were flanked by a couple dozen more. Significantly, in a meeting before the press conference, representatives of police and firefighter unions -- which Gov. Walker exempted from his changes -- assured the other unions that they oppose the bill and will lobby against it.
"We wouldn't advocate for anything that will be to the detriment of labor," said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.
At the press conference, the tone among the speakers was determined but not threatening. No one said anything about strikes, and they brushed off such questions afterward. Their focus now, according to Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, is to "make legislators understand the effect on communities."
Candice Owley, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals, bluntly outlined one of those effects: "This puts our patients in danger."
Several speakers made reference to Walker's desire to run the state like a business. In their view, however, no successful business would treat its workers the way he has.
"Well-managed corporations don't destroy decades of labor relations with a week's notice," said Michael Bolton, director of United Steelworkers District 2.
Danny McGowan, legislative liaison for Teamsters Joint Council 39, likened Walker's administration to a "dictatorship" for its one-sided approach to managing the state's problems. But, like most of the speakers, he emphasized the positive role unions could play during the state's budget crisis, if only the governor would give them a chance.
"Let us be part of the solution," he said.
Palmer, in an interview, says the Wisconsin Professional Police Officers Association, which includes both the Madison police union and Dane County Deputy Sheriff's Association, appreciates that Gov. Walker choose to exempt law enforcement from his proposed changes in collective bargaining and other union rules. But his group is nonetheless opposed because of the effect it will have on other workers.
A statement posted on the group's website goes so far as to refer to Walker's proposed changes as "union-busting measures." Palmer says his group represents 29 individual units, each of which can issue its own statements on the proposal.
Sgt. Dave McClurg, vice president of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, says his group intends to post a statement on its website later today. It is also looking into taking out an ad in Wednesday's Wisconsin State Journal, and it is actively encouraging its membership to show up for this week's rallies against the budget bill at the state Capitol.
That could mean Madison police will be in attendance both to protest and, possibly, to help with crowd control. McClurg says there have been some discussions about Madison police performing in this capacity, which he admits would not be "comfortable."
"We have to do what we do because of our job," he says.
Bill Lueders contributed to this report.