State employees decry loss of collective bargaining rights

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Saturday, February 19, 2011
— Joe Knilans’ office was a sauna.

With the door shut to keep out the roar of thousands in the nearby rotunda, even a small number of people quickly filled the stuffy room.

Fortunately, the folks who work at Seneca Foods are used to working in hot, humid conditions.

Dressed in bright yellow United Food & Commercial Workers stocking caps, T-shirts and hoodies, they wanted to know one thing from the newly elected Janesville Republican.

“Joe, you’re a union guy. How could you do this?”

Knilans had a pretty simple message for the union workers as well as the throng of teachers and others lined up in his office and down the hall all afternoon:

Wisconsin’s got no money.

Zip. Nada.

“There is no money to do anything right now,” Knilans said. “It’s hard to imagine a governmental body with no money, but here we are.”

Taking collective bargaining rights away from public workers could save a lot of taxpayer expense, Knilans said.

“Collective bargaining has a huge monetary expense,” Knilans said.

Knilans, a former assembler and supervisor at General Motors in Janesville, told one group packed into his office that the bill will prevent furloughs and layoffs at the state and will help local school boards and municipal governments balance their budgets.

He thinks civil-service protection will allow all workers to resolve grievances fairly.

But hour after hour, in Knilans’ office, on the steps of the Capitol and in the ringing rotunda, Rock County workers told the Gazette that the biggest problem with Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill would be the loss of collective bargaining rights for public workers.

Waiting in the hallway outside Knilans’ office, Milton Middle School special education teacher Maggie Bromley said taking away collective bargaining rights would harm more than just workers.

Part of a teacher’s job is advocating for students’ needs in the classroom, and many of those needs are covered by collective bargaining, she said.

“If we lose the right to collective bargaining, we’ve lost the right to advocate for them at the table, for their needs,” Bromley said.

Stephanie Kortyna is a fifth-grade teacher at Jackson Elementary School and a 22-year veteran of education. She spent four days in Madison this week and on Thursday night testified in front of Democratic legislators about how important it is for teachers to retain some collective bargaining rights.

She acknowledged teachers might have to compromise.

Kortyna is willing to pay toward her health care and pension. But teachers’ collective bargaining agreements include restrictions on class sizes and teacher prep times, Kortyna said.

If those restrictions go away, children will be directly affected, she said.

“This will affect everyone,” Kortyna said. “Democrat. Republican. Union worker or not.”

Bob Goetka is a computer technology teacher at Parker High School.

He said he and other state workers understand there are two sides to every argument. In this case, it’s a funding side and an expense side, Goetka said.

But from the workers’ points of view, it looks like Walker has been giving a lot of money away to business owners and taking jobs away from union workers, Goetka said.

“He’s given money to special interest groups that he says will attract jobs, but he takes jobs away from working families,” Goetka said.

Goetka said he thinks changes could be made to the bill to satisfy both sides.

“We do come together every time we negotiate,” he said. “I’m sure this time would have been the same way.”

Guy Stricker is a student teacher at Parker and wants to be an English teacher. His wife is a nurse and union member, he said.

He was happy that he had a chance to speak directly to Knilans, he said. But he’s not convinced that his words will change anything.

“They just seem to think this is it,” Stricker said of Republican legislators.

For the first time in his life, Stricker said, he is thinking of moving away from Janesville and possibly Wisconsin altogether.

“When I get a job as a teacher, I want to be able to have a fair shake,” Stricker said.

No matter how the debate ends, it will affect more than just Wisconsinites, said Cecilia Hladky, a fifth-year first-grade teacher at Jackson Elementary School.

“Other states are watching us,” Hladky said. “The world is watching us.”

Last updated: 4:16 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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