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UWRF faculty, staff speak out at State Capitol

February 15, 2011

MADISON—Wisconsin State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) did not show up Tuesday for a scheduled appointment with UW-River Falls faculty, staff and students and others within the UW-System.

The meeting that Harsdorf committed to last Friday was a way for UW-System faculty, staff and students, along with the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, to voice their concerns about Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, said lead organizer of AFT-Wisconsin Julie Schmid.

Minutes before the meeting was to begin, an AFT union organizer said he was told by a Harsdorf staff member that the senator did not have a meeting scheduled.

Schmid then led the group down three flights of stairs to Harsdorf’s office to confront her.  The senator’s aid told the group that she was in a Joint Finance Committee meeting and reconfirmed the fact that there was never a meeting scheduled, said AFT-Wisconsin Communications Representative Jill Bakken.  Those within the group who are her constituents then delivered to a staff member handwritten notes with their concerns and complaints.

Several hours later, Harsdorf was not available for comments and her voice mail was full.

The comments among UWRF faculty and staff about why they wished to speak with Harsdorf varied from one person to the next.  Some said they were more concerned with the governor’s threat of abolishing collective bargaining rights while others said they were concerned about a cut in take-home pay.

Walker on Friday proposed a budget repair bill to address a $137 million shortfall in the current fiscal year. The bill would increase what all state, school district and municipal employees—including faculty and staff at UWRF—contribute to their pensions. The amount of money that state employees pay for their heath insurance premiums would also increase by 6 percent. The bill also would repeal the authority of UW faculty and academic staff to unionize.

Faculty, staff and students from UWRF on Tuesday joined other state employees in Madison for a day of protest over the governor’s proposals.

A UWRF program assistant in the English department, Sheri Fowler, is a constituent of Harsdorf’s.  Fowler said she was a little mad Harsdorf reneged on the meeting but delivered a note to a staff member that said “Please vote no.”

Fowler said that if the budget repair bill is passed, her finances will be adversely affected.

“There is a wrong assumption that program assistants make lots and lots of money,” she said. “That is just not true. After almost 20 years, I am barely making $16 an hour.”

Fowler said that the one of the problem areas with the repair bill is that it doesn’t take into account the vast salary scale of state employees.

“The trouble is [that] the governor lumps all state workers together. He lumps us lowly program assistants at UWRF in with big wigs that make $65 an hour at the Revenue Department,” she said.

Several UWRF faculty members said that they intended on talking with Harsdorf about the lack of UW System representation in Madison and how the quality of education would be tarnished if collective bargaining rights were made illegal.

UWRF English Professor Michelle Parkinson said that if the budget repair bill passes, the University would implode because it would be unable to hire good faculty, which in turn would negatively affect the quality of education. She said she also finds it threatening and disturbing that Walker aims to revoke collective bargaining rights.

According to the bill, the changes within the 2010 state budget will save the state approximately $30 million in the remaining months of the fiscal year.

Walker stated in the bill that the cuts are in light of the state of Wisconsin’s biennial budget deficit that will grow over the next two years to $3.6 billion.

“The path to long-term financial solvency for our state requires shared sacrifices from everyone,” Walker said.