Nearly 250 people braved bitter temperatures Tuesday to stand in solidarity with thousands of unionized workers in Wisconsin, who are fighting to keep their rights to collectively bargain.
People held signs that read "Unite to Fight for the Right to Bargain" and "Unions: Kickin' Ass for the Working Class," among others.
Given that the rally was held on the Statehouse steps, a parade of politicians gave short statements to the chilled participants who stood on the snow-covered steps.
Gov. Peter Shumlin briefly addressed the crowd, as did House Majority Leader Lucy Leriche (D-Hardwick), Sen. Anthony Pollina (D/P-Washington), Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), Rep. Susan Hatch Davis (P-Washington) and Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre).
"The last time I checked, the middle class was the backbone of the economy," said Leriche to loud cheers. She also said there needed to be more support for union workers and the middle class.
There was one heckler in the crowd: "Put your money where your mouth is," shouted the woman, who then chided Leriche and lawmakers for cutting state jobs that provide direct mental health services.
Leriche said President Pro Tem John Campbell could not speak at rally, but was there in spirit. Campbell did briefly attend the rally. House Speaker Shap Smith did address the crowd.*
Afterward, one of the organizers said the rally was to stand in solidarity with the Wisconsin workers, not to take up grievances with individual lawmakers.
The pol who got the biggest cheer, however, was Pollina, perhaps followed by Pearson. Why?
They both talked about implementing an income tax surcharge on Vermonters in the state's two uppermost brackets. Many of those people will see lower taxes — totalling about $180 million — thanks to the extension of the tax cuts that were first put in place by Pres. George W. Bush and were recently extended by Pres. Barack Obama.
The surcharge would raise about $17 million, said Pearson.
"Public employees get pay cuts and needy people get service cuts, while millionaires get tax cuts," said Pollina. "We keep hearing that times are tough, but why is it when things are tough we make things even tougher for people making ends meet and give tax breaks to millionaires?"
Pollina said no one in Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., or Vermont want to talk about giving slightly lower tax breaks to the wealthiest residents to share some of the burden right now.
Pearson will introduce his legislation this week. The proposal would raise the top quintile's tax rate by 1.5 percent and the next lower quintile by 1 percent, said Pearson.
The effective tax rate, however, or the amount they will actually pay, will only increase by eight-tenths of a percent for the top bracket and two-tenths of a percent for the next highest bracket, added Pollina.
Martha Allen, the president of the Vermont NEA, said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's "extreme radical agenda" would "set employee-employer relations back decades" if he is successful.
Though unionized workers in Wisconsin have agreed to financial concessions — including paying more toward health care and retirement benefits — that isn't enough for Gov. Walker. He wants to eliminate workers' ability to collectively bargain, essentially doing away with unions in his state. In response, tens of thousands of workers have descended upon the state capital from around Wisconsin — and the country.
Mari Cordes, a registered nurse and president of the Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals Union at Fletcher Allen Health Care, is returning to Vermont today after spending several days in Wisconsin rallying with her union brothers and sisters.
Is the rally putting a chink in Walker's armor?
"I think what I see is, regardless of whether there is a chink or not, the uprising is growing," said Cordes. "The public sector and private sector workers, community members and spiritual workers see this as an attack on their community and the well being of their community at large."
Cordes spent last night inside the state capitol with hundreds of firefighters and other union workers who have been camping inside the building. She chowed on pizza from a local shop that has been taking orders from as far away as Egypt to feed the protestors. People almost all 50 states, including Vermont, have ordered pies from Ian's Pizza.
* This post has been updated to reflect that it was President Pro Tem John Campbell, and not House Speaker Shap Smith, who didn't address the crowd.
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