By SCOTT BAUER and ?TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin unions geared up Wednesday for a second day of powerful protests designed to pressure lawmakers to halt a sweeping anti-labor bill that would essentially strip workers of their collective bargaining rights so Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature can control the state budget.
Thousands of students, teachers and other workers clogged a hearing for hours and camped out at the Capitol overnight, and so many teachers called in sick that the Madison public school district had to cancel classes Wednesday.
While other states have proposed bills curtailing labor rights, Wisconsin’s measure is the boldest step by a new Republican governor and Legislature to solve budget problems by confronting organized labor. It would end collective bargaining for all state, county and local workers except for police, firefighters and the state patrol.
The Legislature’s finance committee was set to vote on the measure later in the afternoon, and legislative leaders believe they have enough votes to pass it later this week.
Opponents seized on the budget committee’s public hearing on the bill on Tuesday to launch what Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called a “citizen filibuster” that tied up the hearing for hours. Vos, the co-chair of the committee, finally ended the hearing early Wednesday morning, 17 hours after it started. Democrats continued listening to workers who still wanted to speak into Wednesday morning.
Two floors below the hearing, dozens of University of Wisconsin-Madison teaching assistants and students surged into the Capitol rotunda late Tuesday evening, putting down sleeping bags and blankets. Many were still asleep on the floor when the hearing ended.
“I just think it’s really crappy,” said Alison Port, a 19-year-old freshman from Wauwatosa as she clutched her laptop and her Green Bay Packers blanket. “Let’s take all the rights away. If he starts here, where’s he going to stop? What else is he going to throw at us? It’s only going to get more extreme.”
The number of protesters in the Capitol began to swell early Wednesday to several hundred with thousands more expected by noon.
Meanwhile, school officials in Madison cancelled classes for the day because 40 percent of the 2,600 members in the teacher bargaining unit had called in sick. A spokeswoman for the statewide teachers’ union, which represents 98,000 people, said she was unaware of any other district having to close Wednesday.
There was no indication of similar actions among other state employees. Absences at state prisons, which are staffed by union workers who would lose their rights under Walker’s bill, were no higher than normal Wednesday, said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Linda Eggert.
Walker has said the National Guard stands ready to step in to operate the prisons if workers fail to show up. A union leader for prison workers did not immediately return messages.
Scott Spector, a lobbyist for AFT-Wisconsin which represents about 17,000 public employees, said he felt the demonstrations were having an effect on Republicans that will decide the fate of the proposal.
The theatrics notwithstanding, legislative leaders said Tuesday that Walker has enough support in the Senate and Assembly to approve the measure, which the governor said is necessary to address a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit.
“We’re broke and we don’t want to lay off almost 20,000 people,” said Senate President Mike Ellis, a Republican.
Union representatives were attempting to sway key moderates for a compromise but Democrats said the bill would be tough to stop. Democrats lost the governor’s office and control of the Legislature in the November midterm elections, leaving them powerless.
“The Legislature has pushed these employees off the cliff but the Republicans have decided to jump with them,” said Sen. Bob Jauch, one of 14 Democrats in the 33 member chamber.
New Republican governors and legislatures in other states have proposed cutting back on public employee costs to reduce budget shortfalls, but Wisconsin’s move appears to be the earliest and most extensive.
Wisconsin was the first state to enact a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the national union representing all non-federal public employees was founded in 1936 in Madison.
But the election of Walker, an outspoken conservative, last November and the GOP’s seizing of control of both legislative chambers set the stage for a dramatic reversal of Wisconsin’s strong labor history.
Walker’s plan would make workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. State employees’ costs would go up by an average of 8 percent. The changes would save the state $30 million by June 30 and $300 million over the next two years.
Unions could still represent workers, but could not seek pay increases above the Consumer Price Index unless approved by a public referendum. Unions also could not force employees to pay dues and would have to hold annual votes to stay organized. Local police, firefighters and state troopers would retain their collective bargaining rights.
In exchange for bearing more costs and losing leverage, public employees were promised no furloughs or layoffs. Walker has threatened to order layoffs of up to 6,000 state workers if the measure does not pass.
Wisconsin is one of about 30 states with collective bargaining laws covering state and local workers.
Walker has argued that the public employee concessions are modest considering what private sector workers have suffered during the recession.
But Democratic opponents and union leaders said Walker’s real motive was to strike back at political opponents who have supported Democrats over the years.
“So many people are against this,” UW-Madison senior Kylie Christianson said early Wednesday as she sat in the Capitol rotunda on her blanket, putting the finishing touches on a protest sign. “His job is to help us, not to hurt us.”
The public employee bill is the latest measure that Walker has pushed through the GOP-controlled Legislature since taking office in January. He’s also signed into law tax cuts for businesses that relocate to Wisconsin and those that create jobs as well as sweeping lawsuit reform. To achieve additional budget savings, he is seeking authority to make changes in the Medicaid program, sell state power plants and restructure existing debt to save about $165 million.
Governors in a number of other states, including Ohio, Indiana, Nevada and Tennessee, have called for forcing concessions from public employee unions but no similar measures have moved to final action.