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Duncan, Obama Weigh in on Wisconsin Protests

Union supporters and others protest outside the Wisconsin Capitol.
Teachers and other public employees across Wisconsin took to the streets—and to the state Capitol—this week to protest Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to restrict collective bargaining and force them to pay more for their pensions.

Educators staged rallies across the state, and refused to show up to work in a number of districts, including the 24,000-student Madison school system. At the Capitol, rallies drew tens of thousands of protesters, some of whom slept in the rotunda to keep the pressure on lawmakers. [UPDATE (Feb. 19): On Saturday, nearly 70,000 people swarmed in and around the Statehouse.]

Adding to the televised street theater, Democratic state legislators skipped out on votes in the Capitol this week, effectively blocking the GOP, which controls both chambers, from taking action on the Republican governor's proposal.

(Republicans are reportedly trying to track down those legislators. So if you see a Wisconsin state Democrat on the lam in your neighborhood, the GOP would appreciate a phone call.)

In the meantime, both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in on the furor.

Obama was more directly critical of Walker's proposal than the secretary, who observed that unions and management in other parts of the country have worked out deals, and warned against demonizing any one side in labor-management disputes.

The president suggested that unions need to be willing to negotiate over wages and benefits, but he argued that Walker's proposal, in "making it harder to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions" than a good-faith proposal.

"Public employees, they're our neighbors, they're our friends," Obama said in a televised interview, adding: "I think it's important not to vilify them or suggest somehow that all of these budget problems are due to public employees."

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The president's views are shared by many teachers' unions members, who have noted that they didn't cause the recent recession or the budget woes that followed.

In states that have unfunded liabilities in their pension systems, those gaps were in some cases fueled by state officials skimping on the payments recommended by their actuaries, as we've reported. In Florida, teachers' unions are upset that Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers are intent on cutting their pensions, which they say amounts to a decrease in pay, at the same time the governor is proposing corporate tax cuts. (Critics of Walker's proposal have noted that the governor and lawmakers recently approved policies, including tax cuts, that contributed to the state's budget shortfall.)

Walker says his proposed changes are necessary to dig the state out of a projected $3.6 billion, two-year budget gap. He appears to be not backing away from his proposal, saying that the public reaction he's heard so far supports his actions.

While pensions in Wisconsin are negotiated at the local level, Wisconsin teachers generally do not contribute to their pensions, according the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a 98,000-member union. (The union argues those provisions offset low wages.) Walker says public workers' contributions to their retirements need to be brought more in line with what private-sector employees pay.

More controversially, the governor is calling for major changes to workers' collective bargaining rights. He wants to limit collective bargaining to wages; limit contracts to one year; restrict wage increases, unless approved by a referendum; and force unions to stage annual votes to maintain certification, among other steps. All of those changes would take effect upon the expiration of existing contracts.

"The thousands of people who are storming the Capitol have every right to be heard," Walker told Fox News. "But I'm not going to let them overshadow the voices of the millions of taxpayers in the state of Wisconsin, who deserve to be heard as well."

In speaking to reporters yesterday, Duncan said he was disappointed that Walker and unions couldn't work out a deal. The secretary noted that he appeared this week at a summit in Colorado on union-management collaboration, during which he highlighted examples of teachers working out potentially contentious issues with their school systems, of which there are many.

The secretary said he had been trying to reach Walker by phone, and suggested that he would seek to persuade him to work cooperatively with unions, since that model has succeeded in other places.

"Labor-management agreements can and should be a tool to drive student achievement," Duncan said. "That has to be front and center ... when adults fight, kids lose. ... Everyone likes to focus on unions, but unions, school boards, superintendents have found ways to work together and use the collective bargaining process as a tool to strengthen student achievement."

"It bothers me when anyone wants to vilify or demonize one group," Duncan added. "And so I just fundamentally think that where everybody moves outside their comfort zones—unions, yes—but management, yes; boards, yes; superintendents, yes—that's where you see really good things happen for children. We have a whole series of examples we can show you of districts where that has happened, and the benefits to students have improved."

Duncan also pointedly noted that the Wisconsin Education Association Council this month unveiled a set of proposals on merit pay, removing ineffective teachers, and other topics, which he described as "really innovative" and "courageous."

"And so when you see folks stepping out and showing real courage, what we try to do is, we say you want to reward that," Duncan said. "Where folks are intransient or not moving, you want to call them out on that. ... But we have seen folks really move in some reform-minded ways. We want to see that work continue. We want to ... give that a chance to blossom, to flourish."

[UPDATE (3:34 p.m.) When teachers' unions and state officials sit down to negotiate over pensions and health care, sometimes peace breaks out and deals get made.

Look no further than Vermont, where, as I explained in a recent story, state officials and the teachers' union put down their knives and worked out a deal that seems to have pleased both sides. And oh, yes—it's also projected to bring major savings to the state. Have Wisconsinites gone beyond the point of deal-making?]

Photos: (top to bottom) Crowds protest outside the Wisconsin Capitol on Feb. 19, the fifth day of demonstrations there. (Andy Manis/AP); Wisconsin Rep. Joe Parisi, center, D-Madison, cheers on the crowd inside the Capitol on Feb. 18. (Andy Manis/AP).

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