Face-off in Olympia

OLYMPIA — Wisconsin’s continuing political standoff found its way to the steps of the state Capitol Saturday where several thousand union workers faced off with hundreds of tea party enthusiasts in competing rallies.

On one side, there were cheers with every mention of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is pushing to strip Wisconsin public workers of many of their collective bargaining rights.

Walker is engaged in an “epic battle” to break the stranglehold of public sector unions, Seattle attorney Steve O’Ban told an estimated 800 people who braved bone-chilling temperatures for the rally organized by Americans for Prosperity and the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

“We are witnessing a stunning movement in Wisconsin that soon will spread to Washington state. He must win,” O’Ban said.

Across the parking lot, an estimated 2,000 union members packed the steps of the Temple of Justice and tried to disrupt their opponents with their chants.

“I urge you to let them shout and let us stand on facts,” said state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, overcoming shouts of “Shame” from a bullhorn.

“Let them sulk and we will be the ones who will solve and eventually they will be the ones that lose and you and I will be the ones that lead.”

And Jennifer Burke of Woodinville told the crowd, “They are not protesting against Scott Walker. They are protesting against you and I.”

Union members eventually marched off to the snow-covered lawn surrounding Tivoli Fountain.

There they joined 1,000 people for a rally organized by MoveOn.org and an array of progressive groups and labor unions. Similar demonstrations took place in every state Saturday.

Speakers applauded Wisconsin workers and vowed an equally spirited defense against any similar-styled political attack in Washington. They lambasted conservatives for using the recession and budget deficits as reasons for trying to strip workers of their rights.

“We didn’t cause this recession,” said Kelly Fox, president of the International Association of Firefighters, which turned out firefighters from all around the state. “The unchecked greed of Wall Street caused it. And they are attacking us to divert the attention from themselves. Do not let that happen.”

Everyone went silent when Sgt. Michael Boe of the Monroe Correctional Complex began by telling how he found corrections officer Jayme Biendl in the prison chapel where she had been strangled.

“We were too late. I couldn’t save her,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “Do not put my brother and sister officers in any further danger.

“Close tax loopholes, go after the deadbeat billion dollar corporations, make the ultra wealthy pay their fair share. Do not dismantle our rights. We stand together. We are united and we will not be divided,” he said to a roaring crowd.

Walker, Wisconsin’s governor, is pushing a bill to reduce the pay and benefits of state workers and eliminate most of their rights in collective bargaining.

The Wisconsin state Assembly passed the measure. But the Senate is unable to muster a quorum to act because 14 Democrats went AWOL and refuse to return to vote unless the collective bargaining elements are removed.

Walker has said he will issue layoff notices to thousands of workers this week if the bill is not passed.

Washington’s Legislature isn’t facing a similar showdown this session as public employees have agreed in contract talks to salary cuts through unpaid furloughs and to pay a greater share of the costs of health insurance and pensions. The concessions will reportedly save more than $300 million in the current and next budgets.

Republican-sponsored bills to eliminate collective bargaining won’t be considered. However, there are bills to restrict rights of collective bargaining for ferry workers; a hearing on a House version is scheduled this week.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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