President Barack Obama described Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to cut state government spending as “an assault on unions” on Thursday.
Walker’s plan, advanced by the state legislature’s budget committee Wednesday night, would eliminate almost all collective bargaining rights for public sector unions and force workers to pay more into their pension accounts. Public employees would also have to pick up more of their health-care costs, and wage increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index, although unions will still have the right to negotiate over salary. Police, firefighters and state troopers are exempted by the measure.
Although he acknowledged that budget shortfalls are a serious issue affecting the entire nation, the president also criticized Walker’s hard-line stance on the issue. “Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions,” Obama told Wisconsin television station WTMJ in an interview.
He continued: “I think everybody’s got to make some adjustments, but I think it’s also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens.”
An estimated crowd of 10,000 public sector union members crowded Wisconsin’s Capitol on Wednesday, filling the statehouse and chanting demands to “Recall Walker.” About 40 percent of Madison’s public school teachers called in sick to attend the protest, forcing the district’s administrators to cancel all classes. (Read more about the protests here.)
During the next two years, Wisconsin’s budget is expected to grow to more than $3.6 billion, and Walker is insistent that a new agreement with public sector unions is necessary to save the state from fiscal calamity. “I’m just trying to balance my budget,” he told the New York Times. “To those who say why didn’t I negotiate on this? I don’t have anything to negotiate with. We don’t have anything to give. Like practically every other state in the country, we’re broke. And it’s time to pay up.”
Walker, who was elected in a GOP sweep of state elections last November, says that his plan will prevent 6,000 state employee layoffs if passed.