Wisconsin Assembly passes union proposal

The Wisconsin Assembly on Thursday gave final approval to a GOP measure that sharply limits collective-bargaining rights for most public employees.

By 53-42, the Assembly passed the measure, an expected step after the state Senate OKd the proposal Wednesday night despite a boycott by all 14 of the chamber’s Democratic lawmakers. Democrats fled the state on Feb. 17, denying the Senate a quorum, but Republicans modified the bill so that a simple majority was sufficient to pass the plan proposed by Gov. Scott Walker and send it to the Assembly.

Photos: Protests at the Wisconsin Assembly


The result was greeted by jeers from Democrats and the packed galleries. Protesters began to boo as soon as the vote was called, and many began screaming “shame” as the tally was announced. Chants and drum beats resumed inside the building.

Even though the outcome was expected, it didn’t stop the fiery words that have monopolized Wisconsin politics for almost a month and have put the state solidly on the national political map. The battle between the Republican government and its public employee unions was viewed as a test case by the national union movement and by other financially pressed states seeking similar measures.

Tens of thousands of people have protested for more than three weeks outside and inside the Capitol. On Thursday morning, hundreds clogged hallways and some security checkpoints, forcing police to clear the areas and to even shut down the Capitol for a time. The confrontations delayed the start of the Assembly’s deliberations by about two hours with the outcome in the GOP-controlled body assured.

As a prayer was offered before the Assembly session began just after 12:30 p.m. local time, people in the gallery shouted, “Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker” at Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who had just finished talking. The shouts drowned out much of the prayer.

A few minutes later, Democratic Rep. Joe Parisi introduced Rev. Jesse Jackson, who received a standing ovation from protesters in the gallery. Jackson then led the Assembly in prayer, encouraging lawmakers to hold hands across the aisles in the chamber.

But that gesture was lost amid the muffled sounds of protesters’ chants and drums that served as a discordant harmonic backdrop to the Assembly’s deliberations. 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!”

As lawmakers spoke, the protests continued.

“Whose house? Our house!” the protesters chanted, before switching to “Recall Walker!”

Banners reading “Shame” and “Stop the attack on Wisconsin families” hung from balcony railings.

On the floor, the debate was less about the issues then about who should be politically blamed. Democrats and Republicans exchanged charges about who was trying to trick the other and who was engaged in political theater. There were calls from the Democrats for the Republican speaker to step aside.

The resolution to remove the speaker failed 57-37. There are 60 Republicans, 38 Democrats and one independent in the chamber.

After several hours, the Assembly acted and the measure now goes to Walker, who has said he will sign it. Democrats are expected to fight the plan in the courts and have started recall campaigns against some Republicans.

What began as a local dispute over how to balance the budget quickly escalated into a test of political wills last month. The fleeing of the Democratic state senators last month elevated the battle between the state and unionists into a national issue.

The Senate passed the modified measure, 18-1, on Wednesday night, sending the bill to the Assembly, which acted as anticipated. Throughout, Gov. Walker insisted that the anti-union measures were needed to help government in perilous times.

“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.”

After the vote, Walker issued a statement praising lawmakers.

“I applaud all members of the Assembly for showing up, debating the legislation and participating in democracy,” Walker stated. “Their action will save jobs, protect taxpayers, reform government, and help balance the budget. Moving forward we will continue to focus on ensuring Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs.

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.

Nor were the crowds placated by the GOP argument. Outside the Capitol, hundreds of people demanded to be allowed in as demonstrators with bullhorns led the crowd in chants of “Let us in” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Scott Walker’s got to go!”

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.”

The proposals have also incited protests across the United States and a sharp debate about the role of public employee unions in dealing with state shortfalls. 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 and are 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.

On Thursday, White House press secretary Jay Carney again criticized the Wisconsin actions, saying that the president opposes using budget problems “to denigrate or vilify public sector employees.”

Democratic governors also opposed Walker.

“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.”

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