Nation/World

Wisconsin fight echoes in Olympia

Labor union supporters demonstrate Saturday across the street in Olympia from protesters against unions and in favor of the effort to limit collective bargaining for Wisconsin government workers. (Associated Press)
Labor union supporters demonstrate Saturday across the street in Olympia from protesters against unions and in favor of the effort to limit collective bargaining for Wisconsin government workers. (Associated Press)

Opposing sides join in shouting match

OLYMPIA – There’s been no serious discussion of eliminating state workers’ collective-bargaining rights in Washington, but that didn’t deter protesters on both sides of the debate from gathering at the Capitol on Saturday.

Thousands showed up and staged a lengthy shouting match, with opposing sides occupying steps on the Capitol and at the Temple of Justice. A thin line of State Patrol troopers stayed between the two sides.

The rally on the Capitol steps was organized in support of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has compared union contracts to “a virus eating up our budget.” Walker has proposed eliminating the bargaining rights of most public employees in his state for any wage increases beyond the rate of inflation.

Labor groups, which had a far bigger turnout on Saturday in support of public workers in Wisconsin, held a sprawling rally that wandered the Capitol campus.

The two sides spontaneously began singing the national anthem together at one point, with both groups screaming the final words “and the home of the brave” and cheering wildly. But that’s the only thing they agreed on.

“It’s hard enough to get by, and then they (state workers) expect me to contribute more tax money so that they can continue their way of life,” said Brian Lehman, a Grapeview, Mason County, construction-company owner who had to lay off his workers.

Lehman and other protesters supporting Walker felt state workers should not have collective-bargaining rights.

“Public servants, I don’t believe, should be in a union. They have a lot of benefits that you and I don’t,” said Harold Dalland, of Burien, who works at a copy center. “I wish I had the job security they had. I pay 25 percent of my medical. What’s so hard to ask them to do the same?”

On the other side, the pro-union protesters said they were supporting a way of life that everyone in the country should have.

“Most people having the choice would want to be paid more and have more security and jobs,” said Alicia Renggli, a preschool teacher from Tacoma.

John Randolph, who works for the state Department of Social and Health Services in Everett, said that although the Legislature hasn’t been talking about getting rid of collective bargaining, that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.

“It’s up to the workers of all unions to stay together and show that we’re united in keeping collective bargaining,” he said.

The state Legislature has cut the pay of certain general government workers through furloughs and increased health care costs since the recession hit. In addition, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed an additional 3 percent cut in pay through unpaid time off during the next two years.

The governor also has proposed state workers pay 15 percent of their health-care premiums over the next two years, with the state picking up 85 percent. The state currently pays 88 percent.



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