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Wisconsin governor's recall unites public safety workers

Pro-labor movement buttons are displayed outside of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker changed his state's collective bargaining laws, it galvanized one unlikely group: police, firefighters and corrections officers.

Kai Ryssdal: There's no tension left in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, hasn't been for a while now. So if weren't for the state of Wisconsin, there wouldn't be much to pay attention to in tomorrow's last major round of primaries. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is up against a much publicized recall election after he changed collective bargaining rights for public employees last year. Among those employees? Now-disgruntled police, firefighters and corrections officers.

WBEZ's Niala Boodhoo reports from Madison.


Protesters singing: Well I've got a hammer, and I've got a bell and I've got a song to sing all over this land...

Niala Boodhoo: This sing-a-long happens at the Capitol building in Madison almost every workday. It grew out of the biggest protests that started last year. Inside today's crowd, like many days, there are a few off-duty firefighters and police officers -- including Madison Police Detective Brian Austin -- who's actively working to vote Gov. Walker out of office.

Brian Austin: What this guy did is he came in and basically, you don't have a voice, you are servants of your employer and you don't have a voice at the table anymore. And that is not what, those do not reflect the values of our state.

Basically these days, when Austin's not on duty, he's working on the recall. Austin said he's never been this politically active.

Jim Palmer says the governor's actions have created a whole new level of activism among rank-and-file police officers. He's the executive director of the state's largest police union.

Jim Palmer: If you had told me a year ago that we'd be able to get 200-300 law enforcement officers to protest the Capitol or conduct a sleep-in to prohibit or sleep in to prevent the Capitol from being closed down, I would have said you were crazy.

The funny thing is, Walker never intended to have police and firefighters against him. When he wrote the laws last year, public safety workers were deliberately excluded from what was basically a dismantling of the state workers union. The changes forced state employees to contribute more towards pension and health care costs.

Then, last summer, when the state budget passed, it had language that gave cities leeway to force those same changes on public safety workers. And now there are a slew of lawsuits across Wisconsin over police officer pay.

Mahlon Mitchell: I always say that Scott Walker is the best galvanizer, ever.

That's Mahlon Mitchell. He's the head of the state firefighters union -- and tomorrow, he may be the next lieutenant governor. Mitchell's also a firefighter in Madison. He told me he always intended to spend his entire life as one. Mitchell says Walker has changed that -- not just for him, but many of his co-workers.

Mitchell: Speaking from a firefighter standpoint, we talked about three or four different issues. I always say it's the gays, guns and God. Well they realized that it doesn't matter about those social issues right now. Let's vote on issues that affect our pocketbooks, affect our hours, affect our wages and affect our working conditions.

Mitchell likes to point out that in the 2010 election, nearly a third of union members voted for Gov. Walker. Paul Wright was one of those voters. But he thinks the governor...

Paul Wright: Turned around and stabbed us right in the back.

Wright's been a state correctional officer for 24 years. And for the past year he's made about $900 less a month because of how much more he pays towards pension contributions and health care.

Wright: That would be a nice truck payment, you could buy a house with $900 a month.

Wright says that $900 means his son can only afford to attend community college instead of the University of Wisconsin. The day we spoke, Wright had on a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt -- but he pulled it up to show me a red "Recall Walker" T-shirt underneath.

He has five of those T-shirts, so he can wear one every day of the week.

In Madison, Wis., I'm Niala Boodhoo for Marketplace.

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