Madison — On Valentine’s Day, over 100 students in tiny Stoughton, Wis., marched out of their classrooms and into the unseasonably warm air. They had decided to protest Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s new bill to require higher pension and health-care contributions from state and local government employees.
As a student “union” leader barked into a megaphone in the background, one high-school junior expressed his concern for his teachers. “A lot of my teachers have been really concerned about this — they don’t know if they’re going to have jobs next year or not,” he worried.
Two days later, schools in Madison canceled classes so teachers could join 20,000 people in picketing the capitol building. A 700-student entourage from Madison East High School, urged on by their teachers, marched the three miles from their school to the capitol. Wisconsin’s MacIver Institute, armed with a video camera, asked one of the students what the group was there to protest. “We’re trying to stop whatever this dude is doing,” he eruditely explained.
This “dude” is trying to fill a $3.6 billion hole in the state’s budget by requiring state and local government employees to pay 5.8 percent of their salary towards their pensions (most currently pay nothing), and increasing their share of health-care premiums to 12 percent (double their current share). Governor Walker’s plan would also eliminate collective bargaining for almost everything except salary for government employees.
Some of the responses to Walker’s plan from legislative Democrats made our friend from Madison East High look like Winston Churchill. One state senator said the plan instituted “legalized slavery.” (Apparently Wisconsin’s benefits aren’t quite as lucrative as the slave pension plan.) A Democratic assemblyman compared Walker to Hosni Mubarak. On Thursday, with a vote on the full bill scheduled in the Senate, 14 Democratic senators delayed the vote by fleeing to a hotel in Rockford, Illinois. Before he ran for the border, Democratic senator Jon Erpenbach posted a single word on his Facebook page: “Democracy.”
In the meantime, the capitol was packed with thousands of government employees, many of whom had staged a “sleep-in” the night before. One sign-wielding protester approached a tie-wearing GOP staffer and sneered, “You must be a Republican.” He turned and asked, “Because I’m working?”
The raucous, drum-beating crowd was mostly made up of teachers, high-school kids, and University of Wisconsin students. On Thursday, school districts all over the state began canceling classes as their teachers called in sick en masse — government-employee strikes are illegal in Wisconsin — and teachers continued to bring their students to protest with them.
Of course, what the kids don’t understand is that Walker’s plan is intended to save their teachers’ jobs. Without the modest employee contributions required in the bill, Walker estimates he will have to fire up to 6,000 public employees. The teachers are in effect choosing massive job losses over moderate concessions.
In fact, that might be the silver lining in this whole imbroglio: If teachers and their students manage to succeed in killing Walker’s bill, the next government employee demonstration will be half as big.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.