WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama took a stand Wednesday against Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to curtail the collective bargaining rights of public employees and force them to pay more for benefits.
Walker’s bill, part of a plan to close Wisconsin’s $137 million budget deficit, was coupled with a threat to call the national guard to fill the duties of state employees if they protest or walk out.
“Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions,” Obama said in an interview with the Milwaukee-based news station TMJ.
The president said he understands the need to make tough spending cuts to balance the budget, but warned against vilifying or singling out public employees.
“And I think it’s very important for us to understand that public employees, they’re our neighbors, they’re our friends. These are folks who are teachers and they’re firefighters and they’re social workers and they’re police officers. 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,” he said.
Walker’s plan drew thousands of protesters near the Wisconsin Capitol on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Associated Press reports that Wisconsin was the first state to grant union rights to government employees over half a century ago.
Walker insisted he was not targeting state employees, depicting his plan as a necessary step to bridge his state’s budget shortfall.
“I’m just trying to balance my budget,” Walker 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.”
The AFL-CIO responded that Walker “may be suffering from a bit of right wing paranoia about unions.”
“The last time the National Guard was used against public workers was the Postal Workers strike in 1970,” spokesman Mike Hall wrote on the AFL-CIO blog. “The last time the Guard was called out in Wisconsin to quell a labor dispute was the 1934 Kohler strike by the UAW.”