Wisconsin Unions Offer Concessions Over Budget Battle

By Jon E. Dougherty at 19 Feb 2011

(Newsroom America) -- Following nearly a week of protests at the Capitol in Madison, leaders of public service unions in Wisconsin say they are willing to accept some financial concessions but not a loss of collective bargaining rights.

The concessions come on the heels of a budget proposal laid out by GOP Gov. Scott Walker and backed by the state's Republican lawmakers that seeks to rein in the state's $3.6 billion budget deficit by calling on public sector employees to contribute more to their pension funds and health insurance.

Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, and Marty Beil, executive director of AFSCME Council 24, said in a conference call with reporters that public sector workers were willing to do their share to close the budget gap.

The governor's plan calls for nearly all state, local and school employees to pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. Walker said the plan would shave $30 million from the budget by June 30 and an additional $300 million over two years.

But union leaders say they are not willing to accept Walker's call for an end to collective bargaining rights for all issues other than wages; hikes in wages would be negotiated only if they don't surpass the Consumer Price Index, reports said.

"We want to say loud and clear — it is not about those concessions," Bell said. "For my members, it's about retaining a voice in their professions."

In a press conference Thursday, Walker said a number of city officials around the state said in order to close their own budget gaps there needed to be changes in union collective bargaining arrangements.

Walker said Friday he would push back the release of a two-year budget plan for the state, as well as his budget address, by a week. His announcement came as all 14 of the Senate's Democrats fled the state earlier in the week to delay action on the budget plan.

They remained out of state on Saturday and it wasn't clear when they would return. However, most have said they won't come back until Walker strips out the collective bargaining provision in his plan.

In his press conference earlier, Walker condemned their decision to boycott the legislative process, saying they owed it to their constituents to come back to Madison and make their case for or against the budget plan.

Nearly all protesters this week have been against Walker's plan, but on Saturday a counter-protest in support of it was planned by Wisconsin Tea Party activists. Local media reported they planned a demonstration for noon.

Some protesters have said they intend to recall some of the Democrats who have fled the state for failure to carry out their official duties.

© 2010 Newsroom America.

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