Feb. 17, 2011— -- Thousands of students across Wisconsin have the day off, again, as teachers continue to protest Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to limit their union bargaining rights.
Roughly 30,000 protestors gathered in Madison on Wednesday and thousands continue to pour into the state Capitol today. At least 15 school districts across the state cancelled class Thursday as teachers threatened to stay home or called in sick.
"We've seen student walk outs, faculty teach-ins, citizens setting up camp overnight in the rotunda. Since Monday, spontaneous rallies have popped up in every corner of the state, denouncing Walker's extremist agenda," the president of the American Federation of Teachers in Wisconsin, Bryan Kennedy explained.
"The people of Wisconsin are crying out for democracy - democracy in the workplace, and democracy in the halls of our state capitol. Let's hope our legislators have the wisdom to listen," he said.
Walker's proposed changes, which are part of a budget repair bill introduced on February 11, would strip workers of the right to bargain over anything other than wages, which could not rise faster than the Consumer Price Index. Teachers and other state workers would also no longer be able to negotiate for better pensions or health benefits.
Walker defended the bill on Wednesday, posting on Twitter. "This is all about balancing the budget."
The Republican governor put forth the bill in an effort to curb the state's budget shortfall; Wisconsin is facing an immediate deficit of $137 million for the current fiscal year which ends July 1.
"We must take immediate action to ensure fiscal stability in our state," Walker said when he announced the bill last week. "This budget repair bill will meet the immediate needs of our state and give government the tools to deal with this and future budget crises."
The bill passed the legislature's budget-writing committee just before midnight on Wednesday with no Democratic support.
The biggest teachers' union in the state, however, claims the legislation will strip away the rights of workers.
GOP Governors Across the Country Take On Teacher Contracts
"We know these are tough times and we have made it clear to the governor and legislators that we are prepared to do our part to help our state recover. This isn't about protecting pay and benefits – it's about protecting the right to collectively bargain. That's what's being stripped away here – the rights to be represented," President of the Wisconsin Education Association Council Mary Bell said.
"Without a voice in the schools, without rights to speak up on behalf of students and the education profession, educators are concerned about the future," she said. "Wisconsin's governor and Legislature have denied opportunity for discussion and collaboration. By stripping away the rights of workers, they've left nothing more than one's ability to have a voice and to stand together and say this is wrong for Wisconsin."
Wisconsin isn't the only state taking on their teachers unions. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made clear this week that he wants to "separate the teachers from the union."
"We have built a system… that cares more about the feelings of adults than the future of children," he said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. "Tell me where else is there a profession with no reward for excellence and no penalty for failure?"
While politicians on both side of the aisle are eager to reform education and teacher compensation, Republican governors are increasingly taking on teacher contracts with an eye on slashing their dwindling state budgets. Republican governors in Nevada, Indiana and Florida are all going after teacher labor rules.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan reiterated the concerns of many Republican governors this week when he told teachers unions and educators "clearly, the status quo isn't working for children."
"Unions and administrators have been battling each other for decades and we have far too little to show for it. It hasn't been good for the adults and it certainly hasn't been good for children," Duncan said at a labor-management collaboration conference in Denver on Tuesday.
Obama: Walker's Plan Seems Like An "Assault On Unions"
Duncan also expressed concern about the proposal in Wisconsin to limit teachers' bargaining rights and said he would call Walker on Thursday to discuss this issue.
President Obama, who has suggested in the past that teachers unions are part of the problem, has also questioned Walker's plan, saying it seemed like "as assault on unions."
"I think it's very important for us to understand that public employees, they're our neighbors, they're our friends… they make a lot of sacrifices, and make a big contribution, and I think it's important not to vilify them, or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees," Obama said in an interview with TMJ4-TV in Milwaukee.