Capital News Service
Several hundred Virginians rallied on the Capitol lawn Saturday in support of public employees in Wisconsin, who may lose their collective bargaining rights under legislation proposed by that state’s governor, Scott Walker.
Protesters in Wisconsin and across the country have blasted Walker’s attempt to weaken state employees’ right to unionize and negotiate pay. Richmond’s rally was one of many taking place across the nation.
“The American dream is slipping away for millions of us, and we’re here to say enough is enough,” said Joe Cook of MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group that helped arrange the Richmond event. “It’s time for our government to work for us, and not just corporations and millionaires.”
Speakers said the legislative maneuvers in Wisconsin are part of a nationwide effort by many politicians to diminish the rights of the working class. Richard Hatch, president of the Central Virginia Labor Federation, linked Walker’s actions to corporate bailouts and the extension of the Bush administration’s tax cuts for wealthy Americans.
“We’ll be happy to work hard, as long as you agree to pay us fairly and treat us well,” Hatch said. “I say we cannot, should not, and will not balance the budget off the backs of the middle class.”
Walker has called his proposal “modest” and has argued that it’s a necessary decision to downsize government during an economic slump.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell announced support for Walker, noting that leaders sometimes have to make tough calls. McDonnell himself has proposed that Virginia’s public employees start contributing toward their retirement plans.
Susanne Keller, a state employee, said that proposal is part of the attack on workers.
“The fact is the underfunding of the pension system is a result of the General Assembly spending our pension money on other things,” Keller said. “This is part of a national strategy to create resentment and envy among our people and claim cutting benefits is the only solution.”
Rabbi Ben Romer of Congregation Or Ami called Walker’s proposal and McDonnell’s pension plan proposals “moral failures.”
“Those rights are earned; pensions are earned. When you take that, you steal,” Romer said. “When you steal from the poor to give to the rich, when you steal from the worker to give to the corporate greed-head, you violate all religious values.”
Kitty Boitnott, president of the Virginia Education Association, stood in solidarity with Wisconsin workers and spoke out against Virginia’s ban on collective bargaining for public employees.
“The working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of children,” Boitnott said. “Because we have no collective bargaining, Virginia, the seventh wealthiest state in the nation, pays its teachers $5,351 below the national average.”
Supporters said protests across the globe are part of one unified movement. Bill Shafer, a Wisconsin native and Virginia resident, cited a sign in Tahrir Square, Egypt, that read “We support the workers in Wisconsin.”
One attendee cried out in response, “I was there! I saw it!”
J.R. Tolbert of the Sierra Club said the labor, environmental and education communities must join forces to maintain the middle class. He called McDonnell, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Walker a “tornado.”
“The only way we’re going to be able to hold them is for us to lock arms – for us to get out of our issue silos,” Tolbert said. “We must fight back.”