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Wisconsin Governor and Unions Face Off

Labor organizations, including those representing teachers, have hit the streets to protest Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to scale back collective bargaining rights and cut pension benefits.

The newly elected Republican predicts the changes will bring both short- and long-term savings for the state, which faces a $3.6 billion projected budget shortfall.

The most controversial provisions would limit collective bargaining for most state and local public employee unions—including those representing teachers—to salary issues. Walker is not alone in pursuing this goal. As we've reported, governors and lawmakers in a number of states are pushing measures to severly restrict teachers' collective-bargaining power. Wisconsin's leading teachers' union interprets the restrictions in the governor's plan as affecting them directly.

Under Walker's proposal, collective bargaining rights for state and local employees would be changed so that wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer-price index unless approved by a referendum, according to a summary from the governor's office. Contracts would be limited to one year and wages frozen until new contracts were approved. In addition, employers would be barred from collective union dues and union members would not be required to pay them. (Police and firefighters in the state would be exempt from the changes.)

The governor also wants to require state employees to contribute 5.8 percent toward their pension, which he says would put them in line with what the private sector offers, and pay for about 12 percent of their health care benefits.

Currently, pension and health care benefits for teachers across the state vary, because those plans are negotiated locally, according to the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a 98,000-member union. But in most situations, employers have covered all of pension costs in return for teachers having accepted relatively low salaries, said Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for the union, in an e-mail. (Many teachers' unions in other parts of the country have made similar arguments explaining why their plans require lower employee contributions than private-sector plans.) Brey also said many teachers have been forced to pay more for health insurance in recent years because of changes in district plans.

Walker's proposal has led to protests across the state. Despite the show of opposition, a number of news reports are predicting that Walker's proposal stands a good chance of moving quickly through the legislature, which is controlled by Republicans.

"We must take action to ensure fiscal stability in our state," Walker said in unveiling his budget plan. The spending plan "will meet the needs of our state and give government the tools to deal with this and future budget crises."

Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, framed the issue differently.

"It is incredible that one of Scott Walker's first acts as governor is to abandon Wisconsin's long tradition of teamwork, or give-and-take for the good of our schools and children," she said in a statement. "The governor's plan is bad for education."

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