Bradley Whitford, Gabrielle Carteris Rally With Unions in Wisconsin

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The actors, along with other SAG and AFTRA members, blast attempts by state to weaken public employee unions.

As a pitched battle in Wisconsin continues to escalate, SAG and AFTRA members are on scene at the state capitol building in Madison, helping fight efforts by the state’s Republican governor to limit public employee wages, require employees to pay more for pension and health benefits and, perhaps most controversially, constrict the scope of collective bargaining and force public unions to hold yearly votes on whether they should remain in existence.

The acting contingent includes Emmy and SAG Award winner Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), SAG and AFTRA National Board member Gabrielle Carteris (The Event, Beverly Hills, 90210), AFTRA National Board member Robert Newman (Guiding Light) and local union members.

The proposals by Gov. Scott Walker have resulted in two weeks of protests both in and at the capitol building. Thousands of protesters have occupied all levels of the rotunda, with many sleeping overnight on bedrolls. Media estimates of crowds inside and outside the building are in the tens of thousands, mostly union supporters.

The Wisconsin legislation passed the state assembly in a 1:00 a.m. vote Friday and now proceeds to the state senate. However, in an unusual move, that chamber’s Democrats fled the state a week ago, denying the body a quorum and stalling the legislation.

Meanwhile, there have been moves against public employee unions in Ohio, Indiana and other states as well. The situation has attracted national notice, vying with the Libyan revolt for time on CNN and other outlets.

SAG, AFTRA and the WGA East have all issued statements on the matter in the last few days. Calling Wisconsin “ground zero for the labor movement,” SAG said in a statement that “all workers have a fundamental right to join unions and to engage in collective bargaining.”

AFTRA president Roberta Reardon remarked “Stripping Americans of the rights to collectively bargain and to freely join a union is not . . . the way to fix a broken budget.”

The WGA East blasted Walker as, in effect, a liar.

“Governor Walker proclaims that all he wants is to slash costs and save money for Wisconsin taxpayers, but . . . the public employee unions he seeks to destroy have already agreed to the givebacks he has proposed,” said WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson.

Wisconsin union leaders have agreed to accept a requirement that employees pay more for their pension and health benefits, according to the New York Times. The changes would cut take home pay for many workers by about 7%, the Times said.

In Hollywood too, pension and health have emerged as major issues in union negotiations over the past year or so. Health care co-pays have increased and some benefits have been cut, but employers have also agreed to shoulder a larger share of the costs of pension and health plans.

Peterson added that “what [Walker] really wants is to wipe out the voice of the hundreds of thousands of hard-working Wisconsin public employees who have exercised their right to form unions.”

WGAE President Michael Winship echoed that analysis: “Governor Walker’s attempt to wipe out collective bargaining for public employees in his state is part of a national campaign to destroy unions as the most effective and powerful progressive force in America.”

Public employee unions, as well as most in the private sector, have been consistent supporters of Democratic candidates throughout the country for many years.

That these anti-union moves are even possible owes to a legal distinction: collective bargaining rights of private employees, such as those in Hollywood, are protected by federal labor law, but state and local employees’ union rights are not. Those workers’ rights are subject to a patchwork of state laws.

Some of those laws grant public employees no collective bargaining rights at all, or only grant such rights to certain public employees within the respective state. Ironically, Wisconsin was the first state to grant such rights, in a statute passed in 1959.

Earlier in the week, Betty Madden, retired costume designer, IATSE 892, originally from small-town Wisconsin and Richard Wicklund, studio teacher, IATSE 884, traveled to Madison with a delegation organized by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

In Los Angeles, a rally was held on Saturday at City Hall.