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"We Have a Fire in the House of Labor. We Are Here to Put It Out": Wisconsin Firefighters and Police Officers Join Massive Protests Against Anti-Union Bill

StoryFebruary 21, 2011
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In the largest rally yet, an estimated 80,000 people protested in Madison on Saturday against a "budget repair" bill that would strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights. The state’s Democratic senators, who have fled the state to stall a vote on the bill, sent a letter to Gov. Scott Walker on Friday telling him labor would accept cuts to pensions and increased contributions to health and retirement plans if he would negotiate on collective bargaining. The cuts Walker has proposed in a sweeping budget bill would exclude public safety workers like police, state troopers and firefighters, but this does not mean they are in support of the legislation. To discuss this further, we are joined by Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association. “An assault on one really is an assault on all,” Mitchell says. “As firefighters and police officers, we don’t just sit idly by. We make things happen.” [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The political storm over workers’ rights in Wisconsin has entered its seventh day. In the largest rally yet, an estimated 80,000 protesters rallied in Madison, Wisconsin, Saturday against cuts to their collective bargaining rights that have been proposed by Republican Governor Scott Walker. Several thousand supporters of the bill also rallied in Madison Saturday during a much smaller event organized by the Tea Party, backed by the Koch brothers, among others.

The state’s Democratic senators, now calling themselves the Wisconsin 14, sent a letter to Governor Walker on Friday telling him labor would accept cuts to pensions and increased contributions to health and retirement plans. But Walker has refused to meet and says he will not negotiate on cuts to collective bargaining rights. The cuts Walker has proposed would exclude public safety workers, like police, state troopers and firefighters. But that doesn’t mean they’ve gone along with the legislation.

To discuss this further, we’re joined by Mahlon Mitchell. He is the president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association.

Welcome to Democracy Now! So, you’re not included. You’re not a target of Governor Walker, but you’re standing there with all of the teachers and the other workers in Wisconsin who are protesting in Madison. Why?

MAHLON MITCHELL: Well, we, as firefighters, we could have stood idly by, because, like you said, we are exempt from the legislation, the budget repair bill, as well as cops and state troopers. We could have stood idly by, sat on our hands and did nothing, and told them that that was there fight and we weren’t going to deal with that. After talking with my membership and talking with the leaders of our union, we decided that we had to act, because an assault on one really is an assault on all. And as firefighters and police officers, we don’t just sit idly by and let things happen. We make things happen. If there’s a fire in a house, we go in, and we put the fire out. When people are running out, we’re running in. Now we have a fire in the house of labor. There’s a fire in our house, and we’re going in to put the fire out. And if it does fall, if it does crumble, then we’ll be right there with our brothers and sisters to help rebuild it.

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you exempted? Some are suggesting the police, the firefighters, these were the unions that supported Governor Walker. Is that right? And he was going after those that did not support him?

MAHLON MITCHELL: Well, actually, Amy, that’s not entirely true, and that’s one misconception that’s out there. The unions that supported Governor Walker were the Milwaukee police-fire union, who we do not represent, as well as the Milwaukee Police Association union, whom the Wisconsin Police Officers Association does not represent. We actually — the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin and the WPPA, the Wisconsin Professional Police Officers Association, we backed Tom Barrett, who was the mayor of Milwaukee and was Governor Walker’s opponent.

Now, the reason that I believe that we were exempt, and in Governor Walker’s defense, he has always said in his campaign that he views public safety as different. And he thinks public safety employees have a unique job, unique responsibilities, and that’s why we believe we were exempted. Now, we didn’t ask for this favor. We need to come together as brothers and sisters and get the job done.

When Governor Walker was campaigning, going around, he did ask for the 5.8 health insurance or the pension — I’m sorry, 5.8 percent pension pay-in, as well as the healthcare insurance premium benefit. He never, ever campaigned and said he wanted to get rid of collective bargaining and decertify certain unions around the state. That’s the problem we have. So we, as firefighters and police, are coming back and saying, "Hey, let’s bargain. Let’s sit down at the table and collectively bargain and get this job done." We don’t want to price ourselves out of a job, we realize that. We want to make sure our other brothers and sisters have a job. We don’t want mass layoffs. So, we’re saying, as firefighters and police, we’re willing to concede. We’re willing, even though you’re telling us we don’t have to, to give 5.8 percent pension and 12.8 percent into our healthcare insurance, to help save the collective bargaining agreement that we’ve had for 75 years in the state of Wisconsin.

I think we have to be clear that this is not just an attack on unions. This is an attack on the middle class. We have over 200,000 public sector employees in the state of Wisconsin, their jobs, there’s families. That’s 200,000 employees. Now think about their wives and children. You could throw another 100,000 on top of that. So this is a clear attack on the rights that the middle class has to talk to their employer about hours, wages and working conditions. And we just cannot stand by and let that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 10 seconds to go. But clearly, this is not about the budget anymore, because the unions have said they will concede on these points. So, what is this about? Ten seconds.

MAHLON MITCHELL: Well, Amy, this is a clear attack on collective bargaining, and this is also to help election process, I believe. To decertify unions and get rid of the unions obviously makes the middle class less stronger, less money to give to different political —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association, Madison, Wisconsin.

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