Wis. Ground Zero In Fight Over Workers Rights

Wisconsin state workers and other pro-labor protesters gathered Saturday at the state Capitol in Madison to voice opposition to budget cuts proposed by Gov. Scott Walker. Guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with NPR's Larry Abramson about the protests.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Governor SCOTT WALKER (Republican, Wisconsin): We don't have any money. We can't make a good faith effort to negotiate when we don't have any money. But more important than that, the fact at the state level, in the past decade, the average amount of time for a contract negotiation has taken 15 months.

WERTHEIMER: That was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at a news conference yesterday at the state capitol in Madison, where he has said it's too late to negotiate with union leaders on his state budget proposal. For the first time in a week of demonstrations, in Madison today, there were demonstrators shutting their support for Governor Walker's plan to cut pay and the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers in the state.

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible).

WERTHEIMER: Wisconsin has become ground zero in a national fight over workers' rights and efforts to balance state budgets. In a moment, we'll talk with James Fallows of The Atlantic, as we do on most Saturdays, about the protests in Wisconsin and the battle in Washington over the federal budget.

But first to NPR's Larry Abramson, who is in Madison, at the state capitol. He joins us now.

Larry, could you describe the scene? Have you seen any clashes between the pro-Walker and the anti-Walker demonstrators?

LARRY ABRAMSON: You know, people are definitely shouting at each other and they're holding opposing signs of each other, but things are pretty civil right now, but there are a lot of people here, Linda. It's difficult to gauge the size of the crowds, but they're as big as they've been all week. There are tens of thousands of demonstrators who are opposed to Governor Scott Walker's plan to take away most collective bargaining rights.

But today, as you mention, there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of Tea Party supporters and other supporters of the governor's plan, saying that they want to balance the budget, that they feel union workers are leading to the demise of this state, and that it's time to put their foot down. And that's why they voted for this governor.

WERTHEIMER: Have you been talking to demonstrators out there today, Larry?

ABRAMSON: Yes, I have. You know, as I said, this was the first day you saw many Tea Party supporters and supporters of the governor coming out, and many of them said, well, that's because I have to work. You know, I couldn't take off during the week the way many teachers did. You know, some of the school districts around here were closed.

I talked to a masonry worker named Mansfield Neblett(ph). And he came out and he was holding up a sign, saying that he would support Governor Walker come hell or high water. And here's what he said.

Mr. MANSFIELD NEBLETT: As much as I argues union laborers, but we are in a hole this time. And if you're in a hole, you just can't continue digging. Or else, I mean, it's not a smart thing to do.

ABRAMSON: And then, of course, there have been people here all week long who are in unions who support bargaining rights, and they have been the most vocal. They basically have the run of the city this entire week.

I talked to Pete Silva(ph). He's a retired firefighter from Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Mr. PETE SILVA: It's a matter of divide and conquer. If you take the firefighters and police officers, allow them to remain - having collective bargaining and take everybody else's rights away, everybody else will turn against the police and firefighters. We know that it's a plan of divide and conquer.

ABRAMSON: And he was alluding to the fact, Linda, that the governor's plan actually would not affect public safety workers like police officers and firefighters, but they came out in support of their brethren, saying that this was just the first step toward taking away all organized workers' rights.

WERTHEIMER: Larry, five days, that's a long time, for people to carry on demonstrating. I understand people are sleeping on the floor in the capitol. Do you get a sense that this thing is losing steam at all, or is it still going?

ABRAMSON: Well, I think people keep thinking that it's going to dissipate, and then more and more people keep coming in. The streets are filled with school buses of people who have been brought in, either Tea Party supporters or union supporters who keep coming in from all over the state. And the energy is quite surprising.

You know, the weather may take care of some of that energy because, tomorrow, we're expecting a pretty big snowstorm and some freezing rain, and we'll see whether people can keep it up.

Most people I talked to say they're going to stay here. They're ready to miss more work. And they're looking forward to the next big climax, which is supposed to come on Tuesday when the governor is going to, you know, when negotiations are supposed to get going again.

WERTHEIMER: That's NPR's Larry Abramson near the state capitol building, in the middle of the demonstration in Madison, Wisconsin.

Thanks for joining us, Larry.

ABRAMSON: You're welcome, Linda.

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