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Niala Boodhoo · Originally Exempt From State Cuts, Wisconsin Police And Firefighters Now Face Changes Too
February 8th, 2012
This is the second in a two-part series about what’s changed for public workers in Wisconsin, one year after labor protests gripped the state (part one is here).
The Capitol building in Madison is amazing – anyone can just walk in. And in Madison, people often do just visit, like Brian Austin, who often brings his children here.
Austin is a detective with the City of Madison’s police department. He was also one of the tens of thousands who packed this building in protest when Gov. Walker proposed limiting union rights for public workers. The law – Act 10 – passed anyway. So Austin says when he goes into the building now, he can’t help think of it as a “completely different” building – and he means that in both a positive and a negative way.
His ambivalence is because he says Walker has brought the Wisconsin workers together – even though they’re suffering now.
The Wisconsin state worker’s union estimates that some 22,000 public employees are taking home 13 percent less pay since the law has taken effect. As it was written, public safety workers like police officers were supposed to be exempt.
But now, police and firefighters are finding, they, too, are facing increased pension and health care costs.
“We knew there was going to be a slippery slope,” says Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state’s largest police union.
“Economic conditions that are impacting Wisconsin aren’t going to go away,” Palmer says. “And we knew that if municipalities in this state continue to see a shortfall, and if police and firefighters are the only ones with collective bargaining rights, we would be next.”
Last fall, the city of Madison saved more than $2 million when the mayor asked police and fire unions to renegotiate their contracts. Now, workers are contributing three percent more to their pensions and are paying for their own uniforms. In return, no one was laid off or furloughed.
Palmer – the union rep – says that’s how collective bargaining is supposed to work. But it’s hasn’t been so agreeable elsewhere.
In a decision that’s yet to be announced, the Wisconsin police union and Eau Claire County have gone before the state labor board over police contracts there. Eau Claire’s corporate counsel, Keith Zehms, says the county is simply following the law.
“Our position is based on the change that the state legislature made in the law last summer,” Zehms says.
Zehms isn’t talking about Act 10. He’s referring to the state budget. It contained language allowing municipalities leeway in negotiating health care contracts for all of its workers – including public safety.
And that’s why some local governments are saying police and firefighters have to pay more on health care costs – regardless of what the union says. So the unions are fighting back. As of now, there are at least three court cases going on in Eau Claire, but also Milwaukee and Green Bay.
At issue is whether the unions have the right to bargain over health care costs – how much workers pay for deductibles and premiums.
Back at the capitol building in Madison, Detective Austin walks outside to where about one hundred people were singing. It’s a noonday protest that has occurred every day since last Feb. 14, when the protests really began. Austin isn’t the only public safety worker in the crowd.
Madison firefighter Cory Roberts says he’s there because even though his union has reached an agreement with his city, he’s worried about his colleagues elsewhere.
“People say you have amazing benefits,” Roberts says. “but, you know, those were negotiated in lieu of wages at some point.”
Roberts is holding a sign that says “Recall Scott Walker.” Last month, Wisconsin Democrats turned in one million signatures to recall Walker. His Republican supporters have until the end of this month to challenge the signatures.
Austin and Roberts both said something you hear echoed more than a few times by public safety workers in Wisconsin. Before last year, they stayed out of politics. But now, they’re actively engaged – trying to get the governor voted out of office.
February 3rd, 2012
Politics is front of mind here in the Midwest. We’re also thinking about what to wear, watch, and where our friends went. Here’s a roundup of our top Changing Gears stories this week.
WiSCONSIN: Niala Boodhoo went to Madison, where she showed us how union members are still protesting a year after Gov. Scott Walker eliminated public employee collective bargaining rights. She reported on how they’re faring.
RIGHT TO WORK: Indiana is now the nation’s 23rd Right to Work state, only two months after Gov. Mitch Daniels made the legislation one of his top priorities. Will Michigan be next?
MIDWEST MIGRATION: Our Public Insight team has been tracking the stories of people who’ve left our states. There’s still time for our exiles to call us and leave messages for the folks back home. Meanwhile, read much more on our dedicated page.
T-SHIRTS: If you seek a Midwest t-shirt, look about you. Dustin Dwyer found our states are chock full of small companies making t-shirts that represent our region.
DIY DETROIT: Have you found that all those documentary films about Detroit are starting to look the same? Dustin offers you a how-to kit for making your own Detroit documentary.
Finally, a shout out to Troy “Trombone Shorty,” who sings the Changing Gears theme. He’s been immortalized by the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
February 1st, 2012
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
Dustin Dwyer · An Indiana Battery Maker Goes Bankrupt, Creating New Questions For A Growing Industry
January 31st, 2012
The name Ener1 may not be familiar to you.
But the company does have some of your money.
Indiana-based Ener1 is one of the major players in the new advanced battery economy that we reported on back in October. Advanced battery manufacturing has received well over a billion dollars in federal, state and local investment. The biggest chunk for Ener1 came in the form of a $118.5 million grant as part of the Obama administration’s stimulus program (the company was called EnerDel at the time).
Not surprisingly, Ener1′s bankruptcy has led to some vigorous finger-pointing in Washington.
But what will the bankruptcy mean for the battery industry in the Midwest, and the jobs it created?
The answer: Not much.
Back in October, when Changing Gears reported on the advanced battery industry, we talked to analyst Dave Hurst of Pike Research.
Today we called him back for a follow-up.
“They did not diversify fast enough to be able to survive,” Hurst says.
Ener1 says it will make it through bankruptcy with all of its divisions and jobs intact. The company says the bankruptcy process is more about restructuring debt obligations.
Still, Hurst says he doubts the company will remain viable in the automotive industry.
“It’s tough to see a strong business-model to be honest,” he says. “Basically they have to find a market that’s here now.”
The problem, Hurst says is the electric vehicle industry isn’t taking hold as quickly as people expected. Ener1′s CEO admitted as much in the press release that announced the bankruptcy.
Hurst says, if EnerDel is to survive, it’ll have to win business outside the auto industry, in things like energy storage for the electric grid or small batteries for power tools.
And he says Ener1 isn’t the only battery company that could be in trouble.
“Not all the ones that are out there now are going to survive,” Hurst says. “There’s just too much battery capacity for how many vehicles are coming.”
One of Ener1′s competitors, A123 Systems, laid off hundreds of workers in Michigan last year.
But ultimately Hurst believes these are just the growing pains of a new industry. There may be bankruptcies. There may be mergers and consolidations. But he says, battery manufacturing isn’t going away.
“As plants start to ramp up,” Hurst says, “You’re going to see a lot more growth.”
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is on the verge of achieving the top item on his agenda. Indiana’s Senate is expected to cast a final vote tomorrow on Right to Work legislation, and Daniels most likely will sign it soon after
Right to Work laws prohibit a union from collecting mandatory dues at a workplace, even if they are representing the employees. Both houses in Indiana have already approved a Right to Work measure, but one house is required to agree on the other’s bill.
This morning, there were protestors at the Indiana State Capitol, singing “Solidarity Forever” as Democratic lawmakers prepared last-minute amendments to the bill, said the Indianapolis Star.
One would seek a statewide referendum on the issue. The other would let companies choose whether to continue mandatory dues.
Neither proposal is expected to be successful, because Republicans have a strong grip on the Indiana Senate.
Indiana is set to become the 23rd state to adopt Right to Work legislation, and the first since Oklahoma in 2001.
January 31st, 2012
Talking Points Memo, an influential political blog, is estimating that as much as $100 million could be spent on the recall fight involving Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
It quotes analysts saying spending could be two or three times the $44 million that candidates and their supporters spent during state Senate recall races last year. Walker, at least, is getting ready for a pitched battle. He raised $4.5 million in just over a month, and has more than $2 million on hand, according to TPM.
But, given the state of our economy, that got us thinking: what else could $100 million pay for in the Midwest? We found all kinds of things that carry that price tag.
Detroit Schools’ Deficit. A year ago, the Detroit Public Schools were $327 million in the red. Now, the deficit has been reduced to $89 million, according to Roy Roberts, the district’s emergency manager.
But it wouldn’t be handing us back any change. The steps the district took to reduce its shortfall means it has to pay about $20 million a year in interest, so it will have a use for the money left over from the $100 million.
Loans in Cleveland. Last week, the The Cuyahoga County Council launched a $100 million fund designed to build businesses and create jobs.
According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the county is offering 11 types of loans. Five types of loans, including those to attract investors for start-ups, redevelop properties and to lure large companies, will be accepting applications immediately. The others are expected to start over the next four months.
A Bunch of Robots. Ford Motor Company is spending $100 million to install laser vision robots at three factories, including the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne and the Chicago Assembly Plant.
The robots are meant to give the company a more accurate reading of the way its parts fit together, helping it improve quality and reduce wind noise.
Turkeys in Indiana. Farbest Foods of Huntingburg, Ind., may spend that much to build a turkey processing plant in Vigo County, as well as a feed mill and a brooding hub.
Before it can make the investment, though, it needs to sign contracts with 60 to 70 farmers in central Indiana and east-central Illinois.
Your turn: how would you spend $100 million in the Midwest?
So far, three Midwesterner governors have delivered their state of the state addresses. The image above is a word cloud created from the prepared texts of the speeches in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. As usual, the speeches offer optimistic visions of what each governor has accomplished in the past year, and what they’re capable of accomplishing this year. We’ll be tracking what the rest of the Midwest governors say in their speeches. And, as we parse through what’s been said and unsaid in the speeches so far, we want to know: What do you think of your governor’s speech? Were you surprised by anything, or did it all sound like what you’ve heard before? Let us know in the comments.
January 27th, 2012
Party like it’s 1998 Ford is reporting its highest annual earnings in over a decade. The Wall Street Journal says the auto industry’s profits are part of its new math: sell fewer cars, make more money (subscription required).
Curiouser and curiouser Keeping track of Wisconsin politics gets more complicated by the day. While the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board is still busy counting recall petitions against Gov. Scott Walker, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that two of the governor’s former aids have been charged with illegal campaigning. The charges are part of an ongoing “John Doe” investigation of Walker’s staff during his time in county government. Despite the investigation and the recall threat, Walker’s poll numbers are rising.
Meanwhile, in actual economic news, the Wisconsin Assembly voted to ease the way for a proposed Iron ore mine in the state’s northern region. Republicans say it will create jobs. Democrats say the changes could lead to environmental harm.
190 Acres of transformation In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, a 190-acre industrial site represents, in microcosm, the changes facing the Midwest. Officials in the town of Beachwood are hoping to rezone the property as the industrial sector declines and other sectors grow. Officials say they want to see the property used for health care, retail and residential investment.
Obama talks higher ed President Obama will be in Ann Arbor, Mich. today to talk about his ideas for higher education funding.
January 26th, 2012
Although he faces a much-publicised recall effort, Wisconsin voters aren’t negative on Gov. Scott Walker,
A poll by Marquette University shows that Walker’s approval rating is above his disapproval rating for the first time since he took office, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Voters approve of Walker’s performance 51 percent to 46 percent disapproval. Fifty percent believe the state is headed in the right direction, versus 46 percent who do not.
Walker also has single-digit leads over Democrats who might face him in a recall election.
The governor’s performance ratings bounce around a bit, depend on which organization is conducting the poll, the Journal-Sentinel says.
The most recent nonpartisan public polls on Walker were done last fall. Walker’s approval rating was 38% in a November survey by Wisconsin Public Radio/St. Norbert College; it was 47% in an October survey by Public Policy Polling; 49% in an October survey by Rasmussen; and 42% in an October survey by Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. These polls all have different methodologies, so some variation is normal.