Folk music legend Pete Seeger, who has been singing about union rights since the 1940s, told The Associated Press on Friday he's pulling for the demonstrators in Wisconsin who want to stop a bill taking away collective bargaining rights from public workers.
"Maybe the Republican governor, he's done us a favor by bringing the problem to national attention," the 91-year-old Seeger said in a telephone interview from his New York home. "It shows the whole country how much we need unions. We may end up thanking him."
Gov. Scott Walker's proposal would remove the right of public workers to collectively bargain, except over salary increases no larger than the rate of inflation. Most police and firefighters are exempt. The bill is stalled in the Legislature after 14 Senate Democrats fled the state to prevent a vote.
Tens of thousands of people have marched in protest over the bill, including at two rallies that attracted around 70,000 people each. A song Seeger recorded with The Weavers, "Solidarity Forever," has been a standard among the Madison protesters for weeks. A group of about 50 protesters sang it as they left the Capitol on Thursday night following more than a two-week occupation.
Seeger, who's been singing since the Great Depression and released a record in 1942 titled "Talking Union," said he was following the issue in Wisconsin.
"Without collective bargaining rights we'd be right back to primitive times," Seeger said. "The average American, I think, looks upon unions as a standard way of doing business. Just like you pay rent, you pay taxes, you also get paid a decent wage because of unions. It's not because of the generosity of the employer."
Walker argues that taking away collective bargaining rights, along with forcing public workers to pay more for benefits, is needed to help Wisconsin balance a $3.6 billion budget shortfall. He says private workers have been making concessions for years in the recession so it's only fair for public workers to take a cut as well.
Unions have agreed to the benefit concessions as long as they retain their bargaining rights.
A Pew Research Center poll released Monday found 42 percent of adults surveyed nationwide sided with the unions and 31 percent sided with Walker. A New York Times-CBS poll this week indicated that Americans oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions by nearly a 2-1 margin.
Seeger, who has sung at thousands of rallies including one this week at a union hall near his home, said he is heartened by the number of people protesting in Madison.
"It shows me that Americans are still Americans," he said. "You don't become an American by saluting at the right time or singing the national anthem at the right time. You become an American by using the rights which the Constitution gave us."