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Despite Exemption from Anti-Union Bill, Wisconsin Firefighters Stand with Public Sector Workers

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Thousands of workers and labor activists have descended on Madison since last week, calling on state lawmakers to reject Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union bill. Although police officers and firefighters are exempted from key provisions of the bill, they have joined the protests in large numbers. We are joined by Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association. “There is not one public employee that does their job to get rich,” Mitchell says. “We don’t do our job to get rich. We do our job to have a decent life, to have a decent middle-class family and not have to struggle like a lot of our other people do.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMar 01, 2011Labor Organizers Consider General Strike in Wisconsin as Gov. Scott Walker Refuses to Negotiate over Anti-Union Bill
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn right away now to our next guest, who’s live right here in the Capitol. His name is Mahlon Mitchell. He’s president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association. We interviewed you earlier in the week. It’s a pleasure to have you with us here.

Your union is not targeted by Governor Walker, and yet you’re joining with the Professional Policemen’s Association in joining with the teachers and the other unions who are targeted. Why?

MAHLON MITCHELL: Well, we had to decide, make a decision. We know the Governor was trying to conquer and divide us. This is a huge attack on the middle class. He’s basically trying to separate the middle class, separate the unions, pit us against ourselves, and get rid of unions and collective bargaining. And we couldn’t just sit by and let that happen. We think collective bargaining right is a right that we’ve had for 75 years that helps bring the middle class up, as opposed to where they want to keep us, middle class here. We think it’s important that we all band together. So that’s why our union came out, and we strongly oppose the bill.

AMY GOODMAN: You slept here the other night?

MAHLON MITCHELL: I did. I slept here. Me and 60 other firefighters slept here. There were about 600 people total. We did hear that they possibly were going to close down the Capitol. They did not do that. We hope that we had a little something to do with that. But we slept here. I can tell you, the floors are hard. But I feel for and I commend all the people that have been here, every day, day in and day out, to help exercise their right. I mean, it’s really impressive.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your perspective on why Governor Walker is pushing through this legislation and why you consider it anti-union?

MAHLON MITCHELL: Well, it’s anti-union because all the collective bargaining provisions that are in the bill, decertifying certain unions, having to take a call and a vote every year to recertify your union, not being able to collect union dues through payroll. That’s all anti-union material.

What he’s not talking about is the collective bargaining provisions that take away the rights of American workers, Wisconsin workers. What he is talking about is a health insurance pay-in and a pension pay-in, which every state worker has agreed to pay. They’ve agreed to make concessions. So, this is not about money. This is not about the budget, because if it were, he could take those collective bargaining provisions out, and this bill would easily pass. But he doesn’t want to do that, because he’s trying to break up the unions. And this is a way that he can do it through the back door.

AMY GOODMAN: Your reaction to the tape, this gonzo journalist from Buffalo calling up, acting like he was the billionaire funder David Koch, and getting right through to the Governor in a way that these state senators and legislators haven’t been able to, and asking the Governor, for example, about why not bring in troublemakers here? This has deeply alarmed the police chief here in Wisconsin, and he wants to speak to the Governor now. And he said it was something that he considered.

MAHLON MITCHELL: Well, first of all, the phone call. I think that shows how unreasonable Governor Walker is in how — who he does take calls from: obviously, his big corporate donors. That’s what this is all about. It shows that he’s not here to help take care of the Wisconsinites. He’s here to help and take care of his corporate backers. I think he used the term “ratchet up” layoffs. I mean, these are people’s lives that we’re talking about. When you’re talking about — this is like a political game to him. He’s talking about 5,000, maybe ratchet it up to 6,000 layoffs. Well, that’s not — this is not a game to us. This is serious business. These are people’s lives that we’re dealing with here, and this is not a political game to us. So, I think it shows where he really is and who he’s going to take care of.

AMY GOODMAN: Wisconsin has a remarkable union tradition. AFSCME was founded in 1932 here, the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees. And it’s extremely interesting, because in fact Dr. King, in 1968, in April, went to Memphis to help union organize the sanitation workers, the Local AFSCME 1733. It was there that he was assassinated. He died organizing with the sanitation workers of AFSCME. Your thoughts here in Wisconsin?

MAHLON MITCHELL: Well, it just shows how important union work is and how important the union is to the middle class. There is not one employee, public employee, state, municipal, local employee, firefighter, police officer teacher, that does their job to get rich. We don’t do our job to get rich. We do our job to have a decent life, to have a decent middle-class family and not have to struggle like a lot of our other people do. Well, what this bill will in essence do is bring the middle class back down lower. And that’s really where the Governor wants and the corporate backers want us, so that we’d have less power and we have less influence on elections. So this is not about just unionism. This is about an attack on the middle class. This is about Wisconsinites, and this is a hard-working Midwest state, and we need unions to help take care of our middle class.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mahlon Mitchell, I want to thank you very much for being with us, president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association. Any words for firefighters around the country right now?

MAHLON MITCHELL: We’ve been getting an outpouring of support. Keep it coming. We appreciate it. We’re going to fight this battle until it’s done, and we’re going to make sure we get the job done right.

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