Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Friday signed into law a bill that sharply curbs collective bargaining for most public employees, paving the way for the return of Democratic lawmakers, who fled the state in an effort to block the measure.
Walker signed the bill in the morning, according to his office, and held a news conference and ceremony later at which he sounded the same themes he has used throughout the standoff.
"In the end this bill goes back to what we said last fall," Walker said. The measure, he insisted, would protect middle-class jobs, make government on all levels work better and protect good employees who might have been laid off.
The signing is just the latest step in a month of protests and demonstrations by unionists and their Democratic allies, a fight that turned Wisconsin into a national political battleground. Democrats have said they will fight the law in the courts and have begun circulating recall petitions.
All 14 Democrats in the state Senate fled Wisconsin for Illinois in a tactic designed to keep the measure from getting to the Senate floor, but the Republican-controlled Legislature this week passed the modified bill after finding a parliamentary way to get around the boycott.
The Democrats will return to the Capitol for a rally on Saturday, said state Sen. Chris Larson, one of those who left.
"We stepped away with the intent of making sure that the people of Wisconsin and our neighbors knew exactly what was in this bill," said Larson, who was preparing to return to his home in Milwaukee later Friday. "This movement isn't going to stop just because Walker decided to sign the bill and kill workers' rights. I think it will continue, especially with these recall efforts heating up."
"I think it's unfortunate that Walker continues to ignore the will of the people of Wisconsin," Larson said in a telephone interview. "I think it's going to come back to bite him."
State Sen. Fred Risser, another of the Democrats, said he's anxious to come back to Wisconsin. "I've been gone for three weeks," he said. "I always look forward to returning."
A few hundred people had gathered in Capitol's rotunda by early Friday afternoon, chanting their opposition to the new law.
John Corcoran, a Madison resident and member of the ironworkers' union, said he's continuing to protest the law's passage to show "that the majority of the people in Wisconsin are against it."
But Corcoran, 32, said he expects the law to withstand legal challenges. "I think we're screwed," he said.
Blaise Sopiwnik, a college admissions counselor, said opponents of the law must continue to protest.
"I'm really just hoping that they hear that there are a lot of people fed up with having legislation rammed down their throats," said Sopiwnik, pausing in the midst of his comments while a woman a floor below sang the national anthem over a microphone. "I think [Walker] just kicked the wrong hornet's nest. There are so many people in Wisconsin who care about workers' rights."
Walker on Friday morning canceled layoff warning notices issued during the standoff.
"The Legislature helped us save 1,500 middle-class jobs by moving forward this week with the budget repair. The state will now be able to realize $30 million in savings to balance the budget and allow 1,500 state employees to keep their jobs," Walker said in a prepared statement. "The reforms contained in this legislation, which require modest healthcare and pension contributions from all public employees, will help put Wisconsin on a path to fiscal sustainability."
Public employee unions have already said they were prepared to pay more money for health insurance and pension benefits, but they have balked at having their collective bargain rights restrained. The measure affects public employee unions except for police and fire.
Under the legislation, unions will not be able to bargain for health and pension benefits, will be limited in what they can seek in pay raises and have such other provisions as automatic dues payment modified.
Haggerty reported from Madison, Wis., and Muskal from Los Angeles.