FRANKFORT — Several hundred people rallied on the state Capitol steps Saturday in support of Wisconsin public workers, who are battling that state's governor to defend their right to organize in unions and collectively bargain for compensation.
The crowd — including Kentucky school teachers, social workers, postal workers and firefighters — also criticized this state's elected leaders for what they see as the scapegoating of public workers during the recession.
As Gov. Steve Beshear has ordered unpaid furloughs for Kentucky state employees and Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, has tried to end state pensions for new hires, there has been a lot of political rhetoric about the drain that public workers impose on taxpayers, said several speakers at the rally.
Many politicians seem to forget the contributions that public workers make, often at modest pay, they said.
Never miss a local story.
"We are the people who teach, we are the people who protect children, we fight the fires, we provide all the services that are needed by the public, and we are not going to stand by and let them ruin us," said Melissa Jan Williamson, vice president of the Kentucky Association of State Employees.
Grant Short, who works at a state wildlife refuge in Eastern Kentucky, introduced himself to the crowd as "just a state employee."
"I say 'just' because that's the perception these days," Short said. "We 'just' maintain everything in your daily lives."
Liberal activist group Move On.org said it organized rallies in 66 cities across the country on Saturday, including Frankfort's and every other state capital's, to show solidarity with Wisconsin public workers.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is pushing a budget-cutting plan in that state that would require state workers to pay more toward their pensions and health care and also — more controversially — end most public workers' right to engage in collective bargaining. Wisconsin's Democratic state senators fled the state to prevent a vote on the bill.
Kentucky state employees don't have collective bargaining rights, although some local government employees do, such as Lexington police and firefighters.
At the Frankfort rally, Short said Republican politicians like Walker "use false austerity measures to union bust." He said Kentucky's lack of collective bargaining contributes to the state's chronic problems, like poor education and poverty, because public workers often unite to become the strongest champions of good schools and other productive services.
Speakers said chief executives of Fortune 500 corporations earned an average of $8 million last year and roughly half the members of Congress are millionaires, including U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. But this winter's political debate is focused on budget cuts that turn working-class people in the private sector against working-class people in the public sector, fighting over the scraps left behind, they said.
"You cannot defend a CEO making millions and millions of dollars and then in the very next breath call a nurse a communist because she wants to make her mortgage payment," said Keith Rouda, a MoveOn organizer from Louisville.
State Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, the only elected official to appear at the rally, led a chorus of boos against U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and other Republicans in Congress who propose closing entire federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Education. Stein said education cuts will hurt Kentucky families.
For Republicans, "it's not about money, about budgets," Stein said. "It's about breaking the backs of the working man and the working woman."