Protests erupted Tuesday as Tea Party and free market activists clashed with union members, politicians and union supporters who had gathered on the steps of the State Capitol to rally against Wisconsin legislation to eliminate collective bargaining for many of that state’s workforce.
Union members and their supporters have held rallies across the U.S. in support of state employees who are protesting the Wisconsin bill. The bill, supported by Gov. Scott Walker as part of his budget plan, calls for all state employees, excluding firefighters and law enforcement employees, to lose their collective bargaining powers. Democrats there have refused to show up to the Wisconsin Capitol in order to avoid passage of the bill.
While state employees do not have the right to strike in Colorado and do not have binding arbitration rights in their contracts, members of Colorado WINS, the AFL-CIO, firefighters unions and others declared the bill supported by Walker as an opening salvo against unions across the country.
What is happening in Wisconsin is the opening shot in a war on working families,” Diane Schroeder, a member of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Aurora Local 1290 told the audience, “Do not be deceived. This is not just an attack on public employees, this is an attack on the middle class.”
Other speakers said it was corporate tax breaks, not workers’ pensions, that broke the state budget. They said it was the workers who are now being asked to take the fall.
Democratic members of the Colorado State Senate, including Senate President Brandon Shaffer, stood with union members on the steps, while members of the House–still in a debate on the floor–came out on the balcony to wave to a cheering crowd. U.S. Congressman Ed Perlmutter also spoke to the crowd.
“Clearly we are here in solidarity with the middle class and working folks that have been at the end of the line for too long. It is time that we listen to the backbone of this country and not just to the money of this country,” Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, told the Colorado Independent. “It is one person, one vote. The fact that you have a billion dollars doesn’t give you more than one vote.”
Morse said that any legislation similar to Wisconsin’s that would be pushed by Republicans in the Colorado Legislature would likely face a “rational” end in the Senate.
Denver mayoral candidate Doug Linkhart was also amongst the crowd at the Union rally. Linkhart told the Independent that he was there in support of the middle class and was rising against what he called a race to the bottom. “People think that you create prosperity by cutting jobs and salaries and it is just the opposite,” Linkhart said.
An opposing rally, held on the sidewalk below the Capitol, was visited by Republican members of the Senate Shawn Mitchell, Broomfield, and Bill Cadman, Colorado Springs. The area quickly turned into a flash point with police and sheriffs forced to form a line between union and free market supporters as both sides gathered to hurl taunts at one another.
Statements like “Tax the rich,” “Wall Street tools,” “We follow Walker,” and “Union thugs” helped to ignite passions on both sides of the divide.
John Robins, a plumber from Arvada, said that workers who would join unions are out of their mind. He said that it was unfair that public workers should enjoy the benefits of a pension plan paid on the backs of the rest of Colorado.
On the other side of the divide a union supporter, who was not a member herself, said unions were needed to maintain the power of the middle class.
“Over the years I have been concerned about the direction our government is headed and the control of big money,” Erica Parker, a resident of Denver, said. “I feel that unions are integral to the continuation of the middle class.”
Speaking with a megaphone, Matt Arnold, founder of Clear the Bench, said workers have the right to voice their concerns in the private sector. However, he said once one side controls all sides of the bargaining table that is not Democracy. “That is nothing but crony politics and crony capitalism, the new robber barons are those guys.”
Phil Hayes, political director for the Colorado AFL-CIO, told the Colorado Independent that he thought those opposing his group should take another look at their platform.
“We are protesting against the imposition of the government on the people… I just want some consistency,” Hayes said.