By Jackie Clews Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON —The head of the state’s largest teacher’s union says she is “not calling for a strike,” but encouraged public workers to come to the Capitol on Thursday and Friday to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s call to repeal nearly all collective bargaining rights.
“Tomorrow night and Friday we are asking Wisconsinites to come to Madison and stand alongside your neighbors, your family and your friends and help our voices to be heard,” Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) said Wednesday.
Media outlets are reporting that DeForest and Oregon schools will be closed Thursday. Madison schools reportedly would be closed, too, for the second day, due to teacher shortages.
According to the DeForest area school district Web site, Superintendent Jon Bayles “was notified by local union leadership that WEAC has called for a state-wide walk-out of teachers on Thursday Feb. 17 and that our local union is planning to participate. ”
When asked if her members risk legal repercussions if they “go ahead with this,” Bell said, “We are asking them to do what they can do.”
Media reports estimate that about 25,000 to 30,000 people packed Capitol Square on Wednesday, mostly in protest, but some in support, of Walker’s budget repair bill. Walker’s legislation seeks to limit collective bargaining rights for 175,000 state public-union employees, except for wages. It also would require state employees to make additional contributions to pension and health-care plans.
The contract for Diane Mafnica, a teacher in Middleton, says she cannot use reimbursable leave, which includes personal or sick leave, in a work-stoppage effort.
She said it is unclear whether she or her colleagues could be fired if they do not report to work, but she said she has considered taking the risk.
“I’m undecided,” Mafnica said. “My husband just took a $20,000 dollar pay cut, and here I am losing my rights. If I were not married I would be at the poverty level. I have three children to support. So, it’s a travesty.”
A local union official echoed her concerns.
“The very real fear is our most experienced teachers will be laid off because of how much they make,” said Dave Par, Janesville Education Association president. “Really, every school district is hurting for money.”
Chris Wilharm, a teacher in Appleton and a WEAC member, said the decision was made “after two days of trying to negotiate and the legislators not willing to budge.”
Walker said the changes are necessary to help local governments address changes they will face when he releases his budget proposal next week for the 2011-13 biennium. Officials are projecting a $3.6 billion budget deficit for the next two years.
While Madison schools closed because, according to some reports, 40 percent of the teachers called in sick on Wednesday, other teachers from around the state stayed in class, saying they will head to the Capitol after school ends for the day.
“I think it’s unfortunate (Madison schools closed),” Walker said in a news conference Wednesday morning. “I think it’s disappointing, and I appreciate all the other public employees in the state who today and every day in the days to come will continue to show up and do their job that they’re paid to do, and I appreciate them for doing that.”
The Joint Finance Committee was still debating the legislation late Wednesday. A vote by the full Assembly and Senate could still come this week.
Thirteen closings/delays were reported at press time.