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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  Fair
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AFL-CIO president arrives at Wisconsin Capitol to support public-employee union uprising

Credit:Dean Robbins
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Wisconsin's labor uprising went national on Friday afternoon as the president of the AFL-CIO addressed a cheering throng on the southeast corner of the Capitol Square. Richard Trumka gave a barn-burning speech in support of the state's public employees, who've spent the last week protesting Gov. Scott Walker's assault on their collective bargaining rights in his "budget repair bill."

"The 12 and a half million men and women of the AFL-CIO are with you!" Trumka boomed.

After four days of enormous rallies at the Capitol, the protesters showed no signs of losing steam. People were packed onto the grass, sidewalks and railings, from grade-school kids to college students to burly bearded guys in union jackets. And I must say, the signs are only getting wittier as the week progresses. It was hard not to admire the understated tone of this slacker-style message to Gov. Walker:

"That extra $121.4 million wasn't for you and your friends to create a fiscal 'crisis' with, dude."

Trumka was preceded by local labor representatives, who gave short, effective, rabblerousing speeches. My favorite line came from Duff Martin of the Eau Claire teachers' union: "Gov. Walker, you can't scare me I'm a teacher!" Compared to food fights in the Eau Claire school cafeterias, apparently, taking on state Republicans is a piece of cake.

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, spoke movingly about officers who've been "doing their jobs all week, then coming back to the rallies with a 'Cops for Labor' sign."

Marty Beil, executive director of AFSCME Council 24, affirmed public employees' willingness to sit down with Walker to "offer financial concessions to bring our state's budget into balance." But he drew a line in the sand.

"We'll meet the governor halfway, but we will not be denied our rights to collectively bargain!"

Trumka came on to throw red meat to the crowd, and he did it well, calling the Wisconsin protest "the strongest movement in America."

"You're stronger than your governor, stronger than his CEO backers!" he said.

Like many of Walker's critics, Trumka insisted that the governor had manufactured this fiscal crisis. "He gave away tax breaks to the rich and to his CEO buddies so he could come back to you with that sorry puppy-dog look on his face. So he could play the brave fiscal soldier willing to make hard choices."

Trumka tied Walker's approach to the national Republican strategy of making tax cuts, which cause deficits, which then supposedly require radical measures to address.

Trumka's speech ended just in time, as I was about to fall off the railing I'd been balanced on. (It didn't help that the guy next to me carried a huge American flag that kept flapping in my face.) On my way back to King Street, I spoke with Andrew Ryan, a teacher from Freedom, Wis. He and the other hundred teachers in his union took a day of unpaid leave to come to the rally, assuring their sympathetic superintendent that they'd be back on Monday.

So what if Walker's budget bill passes, and public employees lose money and rights? Ryan didn't foresee extreme measures from teachers' unions.

"We'll continue with the recall efforts of the governor," he said. "That's about all we can do."

Well, not all. Ryan thinks many teachers will just leave the state.

"My wife is studying to be a teacher," he said, "but she might have to go somewhere else to do it."

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