Protesters fill the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Wednesday night. (Michael P. King / Associated…)
Senate Republicans in Wisconsin used a surprise legislative maneuver to advance a bill that would strip collective bargaining rights from most public sector workers, a move accomplished without the presence of 14 Democratic senators who fled the state to stall the measure.
Republicans voted 18 to 1 Wednesday night to pass the non-fiscal provisions of Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill, including those that would eliminate or severely limit collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
By omitting the financial provisions from the bill, Republicans were able to bypass a requirement that a quorum be present to vote on fiscal legislation. When all 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois on Feb. 17, they denied the GOP majority a quorum and thereby stymied action on the initiative.
The fight over the legislation in Madison, the state capital, has drawn national attention, with unions calling it an attack on all organized labor and some Republican lawmakers and governors calling it a necessary step to control state spending.
The amended bill will go back to the Republican-controlled state Assembly for a vote Thursday. The Assembly had already passed the bill prior to the changes.
Senate Republicans assembled a conference committee Wednesday, held jointly with Assembly members, to address the changes in the bill, and then quickly moved on to a vote of the full Senate. With no Democrats present, Republican Sen. Dale Schultz cast the only dissenting vote.
In a statement, Schultz said he had spent the last four weeks working for compromise.
"Ultimately, I voted my conscience, which I feel reflects the core beliefs of the majority of voters who sent me here to represent them," he said.
Rep. Donna Seidel, assistant minority leader in the Assembly, said the move caught Democrats "totally and completely off-guard."
"In 30 minutes, the 18 Republican senators stripped away 50 years of worker rights," she said.
The measure is almost guaranteed to pass in the Assembly, but Democrats were not ready to give up the fight, and Seidel said they intended to take the fight to the courts.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca decried the hastily convened conference session as a violation of the state's open meetings law, which generally requires 24 hours' notice, and a minimum of two hours' notice, for meetings.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not respond to a request for comment.
At the brief and contentious joint conference session, where Barca was the only Democrat present, he told Fitzgerald, "Mr. Chairman, this is a violation of law! This is not just a rule — this is the law."
Walker issued a statement praising the Republicans' action.
"The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused," the governor said.
Walker has said the scaling back of public sector union power is a necessary tool to help local governments and schools deal with impending budget cuts intended to plug a $3.6-billion deficit over the next two years. In his initial budget presentation last week, Walker laid out more than $1 billion in proposed cuts in state aid to schools, universities, municipalities and counties.
The bill that passed the Senate on Wednesday retains provisions that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for some workers, including small-scale child care providers and University of Wisconsin hospital and clinic employees. For other non-public safety employees, it would allow bargaining only on wages.
Meanwhile, a quickly growing crowd of protesters assembled outside the state Capitol, pounding on the door and shouting, "Democracy is knocking on the door!"