It’s not just government workers who have descended on Wisconsin by the thousands with signs, shouts and pumped fists. Bob Cannon, wearing his Sprinkler Fitters Local 669 jacket, has joined with the masses. Randy Bryce of Iron Workers Local 8 has made three trips — and plans to bring his family to another rally Saturday.
Airline pilot Neil Robinson also traveled to the Wisconsin capital in his uniform adorned with gold wings, raising a sign of support from the Air Line Pilots Assn.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public employees has ignited a sense of solidarity between private-sector union workers and public union members, both determined to fight the Republican-led wave sweeping the country targeting their wages, benefits and power.
Union-opposed legislation in more than a dozen states, including Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire and Tennessee, has pushed public- and private-sector unions “closer together than has been the case for many years, and perhaps closer together than ever before,” said John Logan, director of the labor studies program at San Francisco State University.
“We see their attack on the public sector as an attack on us,” said Tim Waters, the United Steelworkers’ national political director.
Union supporters are hoping to draw thousands to rallies Saturday across the country, organized by the liberal group MoveOn.org, including one at Los Angeles City Hall.
Cannon, of the sprinkler fitters, said he wanted to show his support for public employee unions because he feared that efforts to take away their rights in Wisconsin and other states could also lead to similar losses for private-sector workers. “Solidarity, unionism — the whole ball of wax kind of goes out the window,” he said.
Three members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 77 flew from Seattle to Madison on Thursday night because “what happens here affects out where we are,” said Don Guillot, the local’s business manager. “If it passes here it’s just going to cascade down to us.... Public sector now, private sector later.”
The statehouse fights have become important for labor because public-sector union members outnumbered their counterparts in private industries for the first time in 2009. Despite the weakening of private-sector unions in the Rust Belt — some hit with mass layoffs and standard-of-living declines — many workers are willing to look beyond their own hard times and give up days off to join the fight.
“If public-sector unions lose strength, the labor movement as a whole will lose power,” said Marion Crain, a labor law expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
In addition to the rallies, public- and private-sector unions, traditionally Democratic allies, are establishing a $30-million fund to fight Republican efforts to weaken workers’ rights.
“This is all about power,” said Ray Holman, United Auto Workers Local 6000 legislative liaison in Michigan who was preparing to drive seven hours from Lansing to Madison to show his support for Wisconsin state workers. “If they can break Wisconsin, they could start a domino effect.”
James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters, whose 1.4 million members include 250,000 public employees, flew to Madison to join in the protests and plans to be in Columbus next week.
“I’ve seen people from every corner of the state that I’ve never seen before” show up at the protests, said Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO and a former steelworker. “I can’t even recognize somebody in a crowd when I’m out there now. Usually, that’s never the case.”
Republicans say the measures are designed to keep their states from going broke.
“It doesn’t matter how many people show up here,” said Ohio Senate Majority Whip Shannon Jones, the Republican sponsor of the bill that would limit collective bargaining for state workers to wages and would prohibit public employees from striking. “This is about keeping as many people employed as possible to do the essential services, but having the flexibility to do it when we have no more money.”
As unions step up their efforts, so are conservative groups.
“This is really firing up our base,” said Adam Brandon, spokesman for FreedomWorks, a conservative group that has helped organize “tea party” protests. Tea party activists are planning their own demonstrations Saturday in a number of cities to counter the union rallies.
Michele Miller, a nursing home worker from Detroit and 15-year member of Service Employees International Union, took time off from work to join protests in Madison and Indianapolis, and planned to hit Ohio.
“I’m just here to support my brothers and sisters,” she said outside the state Capitol in Indianapolis on Thursday. But she had another reason, closer to home: All six of her grown children have union jobs, and she wants to make sure those jobs are safe.
Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi and Dan Hinkel of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.