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Wisconsin Assembly meets with union proposal on the table

As protesters continue to converge on the Capitol, the GOP-controlled Assembly today began its consideration of a measure to curb collective-bargaining rights for most public employees. The Wisconsin Senate passed the bill Wednesday.

March 10, 2011|By Ryan Haggerty and Michael Muskal, Tribune Newspapers
  • Police drag a protester out of the Wisconsin Assembly chamber.
Police drag a protester out of the Wisconsin Assembly chamber. (Carolos Javier Ortiz / EPA )

Wisconsin Republicans went through another day of tumult as the Assembly on Thursday began debate on the latest version of Gov. Scott Walker's plan to curb collective-bargaining rights for most public employees, a proposal which got through the state Senate despite a boycott by Democrats.

Some protesters moved through the Capitol, effectively clogging some hallways and some security checkpoints, making it unclear when the GOP-controlled Assembly would begin its consideration of the measure. Officials on Thursday morning initially prevented more people from entering the building then relented later in the morning.

At one point, a man stood alone in the center of the Capitol's rotunda, leading people gathered in a circle around him and on balconies on the upper floors in a chant of, "This is what democracy looks like!"

Other chants echoed through the Capitol's marble hallways as more people trickled through the building's doors.

Outside, hundreds of people demanded to be allowed in. People with bullhorns led the crowd in chants of "Let us in" and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Scott Walker's got to go!"

Some protesters pounded on plastic buckets with drumsticks or slammed cymbals, while others waved American flags and carried pro-union signs.

At least one Democratic lawmaker -- state Rep. Joe Parisi -- was forced to wait outside the Capitol's doors for more than 30 minutes before being allowed in. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was standing next to Parisi, was barred.

Jane Koenig, a teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said she is protesting because she is "totally against the whole bill."

"The basic right of collective bargaining is being stripped," said Koenig, 54, struggling to stay warm in bitter winds. "This is not about money. This is not about the budget."

All 14 Democratic state senators fled the state on Feb. 17, preventing the Senate from having the needed quorum to act on Walker's proposals and turning the battle between the state and unionists into a national issue. But Republicans modified the measure so that a simple majority, which they controlled, could pass a slightly different version of the bill. That passed by the Senate, 18-1, on Wednesday night, sending the bill to the Assembly, which is expected to act sometime Thursday.

"The measure is really about reform," Walker said at a televised news conference on Thursday. "It is about giving local governments and state government the reforms they need to make government work better. It ultimately allows us the tools on state and local levels to balance our budgets, not just now but into the future."

Even with the modifications, the measure would sharply curb union bargaining rights for most public employees, except for police and fire. The bill prevents bargaining on health and pension benefits and limits talks to some aspects of pay. Unions would also be subject to recertification votes and the bill blocks most automatic deductions for union dues.

Walker has also called on the unions to pay more for their health insurance and for their pensions. The unions have said they are willing to pay the increased tab for benefits but have continued to fight the collective-bargaining issue.

The proposals have incited protests across the United States and a sharp debate about the role of public employee unions in dealing with state shortfalls across the country. Other Midwestern states are considering similar antiunion legislation, even though most polls show that a solid majority of Americans oppose efforts to limit bargaining rights.

The Democrats who fled remained in Illinois on Thursday, considering their next steps. Petitions are already circulating to recall some GOP lawmakers.

"Eighteen Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people," said Minority Leader Sen. Mark Miller. "In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin."

Democrats and their labor allies questioned whether the Senate's action was legal, and the issue was likely to head to the courts. Republicans defended their procedures.

"This legislation strikes a devastating blow to free speech and freedom of association, and will likely face challenges in the courts," said Stacy Harbaugh, of the American Civil Liberties Union in Madison. "In the meantime, the rights of protestors expressing their views about the legislation must be protected. The right to protest peacefully is the most basic tenet of a democratic society, and at the heart of the 1st Amendment."

The fight in Wisconsin was reflected on the national political scene as well. Republican governors have rallied to Walker's side, as have some potential presidential aspirants, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Democrats, including President Obama, have questioned whether the measures that limit union power were needed.

"Democratic governors are faced with the same challenges facing Republican governors like Scott Walker, but we understand that our primary goal should be bringing people together to create new jobs and opportunity now," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Assn. "With their singular focus on settling old political scores at the expense of everything else, Republican governors are practicing the worst, Washington-style politics and only serving to prolong our nation's economic recession."

michael.muskal@latimes.com

rhaggerty@tribune.com

Haggerty, of the Chicago Tribune, reported from Madison, Wis., and Muskal, of The Times, reported from Los Angeles.

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