Federal workers rally against Wisconsin governor

Government employee union members gather at Badger state’s Washington office to protest proposal to curtail collective bargaining.

Federal workers joined hundreds rallying in front of the Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's Washington Office on Wednesday as part of a union show of support for Wisconsin's protesting public sector employees.

For two weeks, union members, public employees and activists in Madison, Wis., have protested a bill pushed by Walker that would confine collective bargaining rights for public employees to wages only, require unions to hold annual votes on whether to maintain the union and limit unions' ability to collect member dues. The bill also would require state employees to pay half their pension costs and twice the health care costs they currently pay.

Activists and union members from both the private and public sectors rallied at the Wisconsin governor's office near the Capitol, carrying signs reading "Don't Slash the Middle Class" and "Union Busting Is Disgusting."

Asked why he attended the rally, Ben Butler, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 2741, said, "One word: solidarity."

The issue is "not about the budget," J. David Cox, secretary-treasurer of AFGE, told Government Executive during the rally. "It's about denying workers a basic right" to collectively bargain.

Union leaders in Wisconsin have said they would be willing to negotiate with Walker on fiscal issues, but Walker rejected the proposed compromise.

Many attendees said they feared that measures like the one being debated in Wisconsin would be proposed across the country. "If Wisconsin goes, the rest will, too," said Sue Thomas, who works for AFGE's finance department and whose husband works at the National Gallery of Art in security.

Federal "workers are facing the same issues," said Tom Webb, a member of AFGE local 3615, in a view expressed by many federal workers at the rally.

Some federal employees on Wednesday also protested a potential government shutdown that could come when the current spending bill expires on March 4. Attendees at the rally carried signs reading, "No Union Busting, No Shutdown."

Saul Schniderman, a Library of Congress employee who is president of Council 26 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents a portion of federal employees, said the potential shutdown was a big concern for members of his guild, recounting the last federal government shutdown in 1995. It was "not a pretty picture," he said.

Ann Buchanan, a retired Census Bureau employee, said she feared a government shutdown this year would affect workers more, given the state of the economy. In contrast with the current uncertainty surrounding whether workers would be compensated for furloughed time retroactively, during the last shutdown "there was a sense that it would be resolved," Buchanan said. "Government employees -- who want to work -- would be shut out of their jobs." said Cox, adding he thinks Republicans are trying to "starve [agencies] of the resources that they need" to fulfill their missions with their proposed budget for the rest of fiscal 2011.

"It's about clean water, clean air, veterans' health care" and the other services government provides, Cox said.