Wisconsin’s financial problems are not as dire as those of many other states. But a simmering resentment
over those lost jobs and lost benefits in private industry — combined with the state’s history of highly polarized politics — may explain why Wisconsin, once a pioneer in supporting organized labor, has set off a debate that is spreading to other states over public workers, unions and budget woes.
There are deeply divided opinions and shifting allegiances
over whether unions are helping or hurting people who have been caught in the recent economic squeeze. And workers themselves, being pitted against one another
, are finding it hard to feel sympathy or offer solidarity, with their own jobs lost and their benefits and pensions cut back or cut off.
In Madison, the capital, which has become the focus of protests, many state workers and students at the University of Wisconsin predictably oppose the proposed cuts. But away from Madison, many people said that public workers needed to share in the sacrifice that their own families have been forced to make.
The effort to weaken bargaining rights for public-sector unions has been particularly divisive, with some people questioning the need to tackle such a fundamental issue to solve the state’s budget problems. But more often
the conversation has turned to the proposals to increase public workers’ contributions to their pensions and health care, and on these issues people said they were less sympathetic, and often grew flushed and emotional telling stories of their own pay cuts and financial worries.