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The nation was riveted on Madison, Wisconsin last year when tens of thousands of people protested Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to dismantle most union rights for state and local workers. Walker was successful. Now, a year later, how have those changes made life different in Wisconsin? Changing Gears has been taking a look at the impact state governments have on everyday life, and I take a look at Wisconsin in the first of two reports.

The Solidarity Sing Along outside the Capitol building in Madison, Wisc. (Niala Boodhoo)

It’s noon, and on the steps of the Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, about 100 people are gathered in a circle, singing labor songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Solidarity Forever”. They have a conductor, drummer, someone passing out songbooks and even a cymbals player. It’s been dubbed the Solidarity Sing-A-Long.

People wave signs protesting Gov. Scott Walker as they walk. Some signs call for his recall.

Last Valentine’s Day, when the sing-a-long began, thousands of workers were protesting at the Capitol. They were trying to get legislators to stop Walker’s proposal to take away collective bargaining rights for state workers.

Wisconsin was one of the first states in the country to allow its public workers to unionize. Dues were taken right out of their paychecks, and they were represented by unions that bargained over wages, pensions and health care contributions.

When Act 10 passed last March, the unions remained, but their collective bargaining power was gone. Now, members have to opt into the union, instead of opting out.

Walker declined requests to be interviewed for this story. But in his State of the State address last week, he provided his perspective on what he was facing last year, when Wisconsin’s budget deficit was about $3.6 billion.

Act 10 was referred to as the Budget Repair Bill.

Today, Walker claims Wisconsin has a balanced budget. (Whether or not the budget is actually balanced is controversial in Wisconsin. Walker’s spokesman directed me to this website. But a recent LaCrosse Tribune editorial offers another view.)

Walker was interrupted several times by hecklers during his speech. But he was met with applause and cheers when he noted Wisconsin’s unemployment rate, which has dropped from 7.5 percent to 7.1 percent, is the lowest it’s been since 2008.

“We’re turning things around,” he said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”

Paul Wright has worked for Wisconsin's Dept. of Corrections for 24 years. (Niala Boodhoo)

State worker Paul Wright sees things differently.

“He turned around and stabbed us in the back,” said Wright, a 24-year veteran of the state’s corrections office. He said he, like most corrections officers, voted for Walker.

Since last July, Wright estimates he has made about $900 less a month because of increased pension and health care contributions.

In his case, the loss in income means Wright’s son is going to a local community college instead of the University of Wisconsin. He hopes his son will eventually be able to transfer to the more-expensive school.

And Wright says he’s actively involved in politics for the first time. He helped collect signatures for the petition to recall Gov. Walker. Under his Packers sweatshirt, he showed me a red “Recall Walker” shirt. He has five of them, so he can wear one every day of the week.

Wright makes $26 an hour. That’s almost twice the average hourly pay for most state, county and municipal workers, according to Wisconsin’s state employees union, AFCSME Council 24.

“We now have folks who utilize food banks, food stamps, are living on the edge, paycheck to paycheck,” said Martin Bell, its executive director, adding the average pay of its members is about $14.50 an hour.

Before Act 10, the union represented 22,000 state workers. Now that workers have to sign up voluntarily, about half have done so. Beil is on the road most of the time recruiting them back into the union.

Too bad it was too cold for frozen custard. (Niala Boodhoo)

About 50 miles east of Madison, in Delafield, I stopped by the Wholly Cow Frozen Custard downtown. Delafield is between Madison and Milwaukee. The shop’s closed in the winter – it was 25 degrees when I was there, and owner Jan Stoffer says people don’t eat enough ice cream in the winter to keep it open.

Jan and Jim Stoffer are small business owners in Delafield, Wisc. (Niala Boodhoo)

Jan and her husband, Jim run the business together. In the winter, Jim works for the state teaching part-time at Waukesha Community Technical College. Jan is a business consultant. The couple don’t exactly see eye to eye on Walker.

Jim Stoffer applauded the governor’s political will in seeing Act 10 get passed.

“This guy inherited a lot of problems from Gov. Doyle,” he said. “You can’t just continue to spend money forever”.

Jan Stoffer, who used to be a teacher, disagrees. She said her husband’s comment sounds reasonable until you realize that money is being taken away from teachers, while corporations continue to make a lot of money. And she thinks it’s not just teachers – it will only get worse for all state workers.

“When they were trying to push this through, and they said, ‘Oh, don’t worry it’s not going to affect the firefighters and the police officers’. But it’s the old slippery slope. If you’re going to make that be the rule ofr a certain group, it’s going to trickle down to others. How can it not?

Remember the Solidarity Singers who are still protesting in Madison? I’ll be reporting next on police officers and firefighters who were singing, too – even though these changes weren’t supposed to affect them.

*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Add your story here.


It’s been a year since people first started filling the Wisconsin capitol building to protest changes in the state’s collective bargaining rules. Every day at noon, a group that calls itself the “Solidarity Singers” gathers at the Capitol. Reporter Niala Boodhoo took this video on a reporting trip there last week. Tomorrow, Niala will have a story looking at what’s changed. For now, though, check out the Solidarity Singers.


Sarah Alvarez

David Dolsen (l), Jason Gumenick (center) and Lila Howard (r) sit in Saline High School.

It’s been a tough few years for teachers. Classes are bigger. Pay is down. Benefits cost more. And, in the last year, teachers across the Midwest have been at the center of collective bargaining fights in Wisconsin and Ohio. With all that, we wanted to know what it’s like to be a teacher today. So, three generations assembled in Lila Howard’s classroom at Saline High School near Ann Arbor. Howard is about to retire after years teaching AP Psychology. Jason Gumenick teaches government and is in the middle of his career. Then, there’s David Dolsen, a college freshman, who had both of the others as teachers.

“They’re probably two of my favorite teachers in high school and also two of my mentors here as well,” he said as the three sat at a table in the classroom.

Now, he wants to become a teacher and looks to Lila Howard and Jason Gumenick for advice. He knows they love what they do, but he hears from Howard what they’re going through.

“Taking away your bargaining rights, taking away your job security, tenure, money, things like that. So, how do you feel about that, David?” Howard asked. “Are those concerns you’re mulling around in your mind?”
“Definitely,” Dolsen said. “The only reason I’m not 100% sure that I would want to be a teacher is essentially because of those issues. The pay for teachers even is not very good, obviously, and there’s just no real security now.”

Jason Gumenick and Lila Howard have already seen their pay cut, and benefit costs rise. Howard thinks she’ll need to get another job in retirement. Jason Gumenick, who’s 37 and newly married, is not running out the classroom door, but in the back of his mind, he’s thinking what he could do if he were to leave teaching.

Sarah Alvarez

Saline High School

“I think a lot of teachers need to start thinking about Plan B,” Gumenick said. “Administration, public policy, business, different opportunities that might be out there.”

Howard chimed in: “Overall morale has, I think, drastically changed as a result of what’s going on in education.”

As David Dolsen, the college freshman hears all this, he begins to realize there might not be opportunities for him at home.

“I don’t think I could get a job in Michigan in teaching probably, or even in the Midwest from what it sounds like,” he said.

And, he’s thinking about alternatives.

“I’ve started to look at engineering.”

But not so fast. There’s some good news for prospective teachers like Dolsen. Dr. Cathy Rosemary, who chairs the education department at John Carroll University, says we could soon need a lot of them in the classroom.

“In the next ten years I see a big shortage,” she said. “Because I think classrooms—schools in general—are populated largely by women in their 50s and 60s and there will be time in the next decade when these folks will be retiring.”

Not only that, Craig Brown, a lawyer who represents school boards, says the changes in teachers’ contracts can benefit those new teachers entering the field. Loosening seniority rules can help the young get ahead.

“We’ve all read and heard about that teacher of the year in Indiana who was laid off after that school year because she was a young, new, exciting teacher but she didn’t have the seniority to maintain her job when the district faced financial difficulties,” Brown said.
And, for all the angst among teachers and prospective teachers, Lila Howard says this is still a calling. She wouldn’t trade this job.

“The students are the best thing about teaching,” she said. “That’s the bottom line. Being with them every day. Working with incredibly wonderful young people. The future of our society!”

And, as Howard works her last few months in Saline before retiring, all the political focus on teachers has her thinking of running for school board.

Sarah Alvarez contributed to this story. It was informed by the Public Insight Network.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Contenders seek spurned transit funding. The city of Troy, Michigan rejected federal funds to build a mass-transit center. Now other suburban Detroit municipalities are lining up in hopes of claiming part of the $8.5 million. A U.S. Congressman pledged to have the money allocated to Royal Oak and Pontiac. The Detroit Free Press reports today a high-speed “turnaround area” for buses could be built in Pontiac while a rail facility could be built in Royal Oak. Meanwhile, Troy has faced a backlash for its decision. Gov. Rick Snyder wrote a letter saying he was “disappointed” in the decision, and Magna International, which employs more than 1,000 in Troy, said it will no longer seek expansion or job creation in the city.

2. Wisconsin fight not over yet? The Wisconsin Supreme Court could be asked to reopen a controversial case about collective bargaining legislation because a justice who presided in the original hearing received free legal service from an attorney involved in the case. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports Dane County district attorney Ismael Ozanne is “taking a hard look” at asking the Supreme Court to reopen the case. Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman cast the deciding vote in a ruling that said state legislators had not violated the open meetings law when mulling the controversial legislation, which allowed a decision to limit collective bargaining for public workers to stand.

3. EPA mandates could cost Ohio. Many utilities in Ohio and elsewhere must cut 90 percent of the mercury emitted from their power plants under toughened air pollution limits announced Wednesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “This is a great victory for public health, especially the health of our children,” said an EPA spokesperson. Industry representatives say the new rules mean more expensive electricity for customers and job losses because older plants may shut down rather than overhaul. The Columbus Dispatch says Ohio typically ranks No. 1 in the nation for the amount of toxic pollutants emitted by industry, largely because of power plants that burn coal.


At midnight tonight, opponents of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will kick off efforts to recall him from office.

The group United Wisconsin intends to start gathering signatures needed to force a recall election at that time after filing paperwork with the state. A pajama-party rally is planned at the state capitol in Madison. Other groups are planning an anti-Walker rally at his home in Wauwatosa, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Organizers must gather more than 540,000 signatures by Jan. 17 to set a recall in motion. United Wisconsin says it will attempt to gather 600,000 to 700,000 to allow for leeway in case some signatures are not allowed.

To that effect, the state’s Republican Party will be watching. On Monday, GOP leaders announced they’ve started the new Recall Integrity Center, a website devoted to scrutinizing signatures, according to The Capitol Times. Voters are encouraged to submit videos, photos or other reports of signatures or aspects of the signature-gathering process they deem suspect.

Meanwhile, the Journal Sentinel reports Democrats are concerned Republicans will gather recall signatures under false pretenses – and then destroy them.

For what it’s worth, Reid Magney, a spokesperson for the electoral accountability board, notes that “fraudulently defacing or destroying election petitions is a felony.”

 


Fresh off a lopsided defeat on the Issue 2 referendum, Ohio Gov. John Kasich conceded his signature law that limited collective-bargaining rights of public employees might have been “too much, too soon” for voters.

Now, the question is whether he’ll introduce similar legislation in bite-sized parts.

Despite the fact Issue 2 fell in Tuesday’s vote, 61 percent to 39 percent, polls suggest Ohio voters would support portions of the original law, widely known as Senate Bill 5. Republicans still maintain legislative majorities. More importantly: economic woes that led to SB5 still exist, and budget deficits still need to be solved.

“There is no bailout because, frankly, there’s no money,” Kasich said, according to The Columbus Dispatch, perhaps words that set up the legislative agenda to follow in 2012.

In Cleveland, The Plain Dealer compares the financial position of Ohio municipal governments to that of Detroit automakers three years ago: Needing relief from obligations and procedures they can no longer afford. The newspaper calls Tuesday’s vote “an appetizer” for what happens in 2012.

Expect to see parts of the SB5 law introduced piecemeal, including the introduction of merit pay, employee contributions to healthcare premiums, an emphasis of merit versus seniority in the way layoffs are handled.

If Ohio Republicans had stuck to those points in the first place, Tuesday’s repeal may have been avoided.

Once SB5 because, “an all-out assault on the very existence of public employee unions, they alienated thousands of fair-minded Ohioans,” the newspaper editorialized. It was, “a tone-deaf campaign … class warfare, waged by Republicans.”

 


On the night before a statewide referendum on his signature accomplishment to date, Ohio governor John Kasich spoke to a friendly Tea Party audience of approximately 300 members in northeast Columbus.

He didn’t mention Issue 2 or SB5 until the final two minutes of his hour-long speech.

Although pollsters have predicted voters would repeal the Republican-backed law that limits collective-bargaining rights of public employees by double-digit margins for weeks, it was the first signal from Kasich himself that he expected such an outcome.

It’s a rebuke of Kasich himself, opines Time, which explores the quick descent of a one-time, sure-fire political star in Issue 2 coverage today. At his election in November, 2010, Kasich was a nine-term congressman with an eye on a presidential run. One year later, he’s the second-least popular U.S. governor, according to the article.

Democrats, floundering in Ohio polls since Kasich’s election, hope to use unified opposition to Issue 2 and SB5 as a springboard for a recovery in the Buckeye State before the 2012 presidential election.

Time sums up his misstep: “Public-sector unions have been a frequent target of Republicans’ ire, but they’re not a good piñata in this pivotal swing state.”

 


Across Ohio, voters are headed to the polls today to determine the fate of Issue 2, a referendum on a controversial state law that limits the collective-bargaining rights of public employees.

Here’s a roundup of ongoing coverage of the vote on Issue 2 from around the Buckeye State:

From The Columbus Dispatch: Issue 2 is expected to drive voters to the polls at higher numbers than other non-presidential election years. Franklin County, which encompasses the greater Columbus area, reached a record number of absentee-ballot requests this year at more than 88,000. The Dispatch reports voter turnout is expected to be far higher than the 31 percent of registered voters that cast ballots in 2009.

From Ideastream: Our partner station in Cleveland examines the advertising campaigns mounted by pro-and-anti Issue 2 interest groups. Depending on the vantage point, Issue 2 will harm education. Or save it. It will bolster police forces. Or ruin them. Ideastream reporter Ida Lieszkovsky reports that the ads bring a lot of emotion to the issue, but little concrete information. “There’s usually some truth in there that they’re hanging it on, but sometimes there’s also quite a bit of reach to get the spin,” Robert Higgs, editor of PolitiFact Ohio tells Lieszkovsky.

From the Cincinnati Enquirer: The respective campaigns for and against Issue 2 and its legislative predecessor, Senate Bill 5, have taken perhaps an interesting turn in the final hours. Union opponents of the bill boldly spoke of defeating the referendum at a union hall in Hamilton County. “We are going to shove Senate Bill 5 down the throats of John Kasich and his ilk,” said Howard Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters.

In a speech to 300 Tea Party supporters in Eastgate, Gov. Kasich spoke for an hour Monday night. He didn’t mention Issue 2 until the final two minutes of his speech, according to The Enquirer.

From The Plain Dealer: The U.S. Justice Department has sent election observers to Lorain County today to ensure that county officials keep a commitment to provide Spanish-language ballots.  Last month, the county’s Board of Elections agreed to provide the ballots as part of a lawsuit settlement with the DOJ. The Plain Dealer reports bilingual ballots and bilingual poll workers will be provided in targeted precints.

From Politico: Democrats were stung in Ohio in the 2010 elections, losing the governorship and five congressional seats. This year? They’re planning on using traction from the Issue 2 as a springboard into the national 2012 elections.  James Hohmann writes, “Obama is still polling badly in Ohio, but his campaign has capitalized on perceived Republican overreach to bring recalcitrant liberals back into the fold.”


“Shall the law be approved?”

It’s a simple question that voters will see on ballots across Ohio on Tuesday. Their answers will write another chapter around one of the most divisive issues of the 2011 campaign season, a political battle over Issue 2 and the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

Here are some of the basics:

The history: Issue 2 is a referendum that provides a bookend to an earlier piece of state legislation, Ohio’s Senate Bill 5, which was passed by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich on March 31. SB5 limits the collective bargaining rights of Ohio’s 360,000 public employees.

Among the mandates of SB5: It says public employees must pay for at least 15 percent of their health care premiums, prohibits union members from negotiating benefits, makes strikes by union members illegal and emphasizes merit versus seniority when mulling promotions.

The buildup: Union organizers gathered enough signatures to place a repeal of SB5 on the November ballot. At the end of August – five months after signing the bill into law — Gov. Kasich sought a compromise on SB5 that would strike down some provisions in exchange for removing the referendum, now known as Issue 2, from the ballot.

Organizers of the anti-SB5 group We Are Ohio told the governor they would not compromise on piecemeal provisions in the law. They wanted it repealed in its entirety before they would negotiate. An August 30 deadline passed. No compromise was reached.

What happens Tuesday: Polling places are open in Ohio from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. ET. A “yes” vote on Issue 2 means a voter approves of the SB5 law. A “no” vote means a voter rejects the law.

What comes next: Two weeks ago, a Quinnipiac Poll showed voters could reject the measure by a 25-point margin. If Issue 2 is defeated and SB5 is repealed, that hardly means the debate is finished.

Many Ohio politicians have indicated that the Republican-led legislature would introduce parts of the bill individually – while recent polls have showed weak support for SB5 overall, they have also shown strong support for certain segments of it.

The Columbus Dispatch reported Monday those provisions could include, “limits on how much local governments would be required to pay toward employees’ health-insurance costs or on picking up portions of employees’ pension contributions.“

Broader implications: Results of the Ohio vote are being closely watched across the Midwest. In Wisconsin,a fight of similarly fierce volume broke out over legislation that limited the collective-bargaining rights of public employees, and many experts will draw parallels between the Ohio results and ongoing efforts in Wisconsin to recall Gov. Scott Walker.

But there are clear distinctions between the states and the way they operate, explains the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen tells the newspaper it’s partly a referendum on the governors.

“I think that if the (Ohio law) really does get rejected by the kind of margins the polls are suggesting, it’s a reflection of the fact that John Kasich is a lot more unpopular than Scott Walker is,” he said.

 


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Sales up at Ford, forecast down. Ford’s third-quarter sales rose 14.1 percent year over year to $33.1 billion, the company said Wednesday morning. But the automaker’s global production plan of 1.37 million vehicles is below the 1.44 million anticipated by analysts, and investors had sold off Ford shares in morning trading, according to the Detroit Free Press. The gap came as a result of “a lower outlook in South America, Asia Pacific and Europe,” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas wrote.

2. Cook County plans layoffs. Cook County executives unveiled a budget that called for more than 1,000 layoffs to help narrow a projected $315 million deficit, according to our partner station WBEZ. Saying “there’s been nothing easy about this,” board president Toni Preckwinkle said hospital funding and the county’s jail population would be reduced in additional savings measures. She is also trying to convince the county’s union workers to accept furloughs to save $40 million instead of layoffs.

3. Wisconsin public employee pay freeze ahead? Wisconsin state employees may face a pay freeze over the next two years if lawmakers support a proposal from Gov. Scott Walker. The new proposal comes months after Walker required public workers to pay more for their pensions and health insurance while also eliminating almost all collective bargaining. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports another change in the proposed legislation would award overtime only for actual hours worked, after a newspaper investigation revealed how prison guards gamed the overtime system to boost their pay.