As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Friday signed into law a bill that sharply curbs collective bargaining for most public employees, his opponents were preparing for more demonstrations, court battles and political infighting over what has become a national test of labor’s power.
Organizers were hoping to attract tens of thousands protesters to the state Capitol on Saturday for a rally featuring the return of Democratic lawmakers who fled the state on Feb. 17 in an effort to block the measure from passing. Along with the rally, Democrats are planning to ask the courts to overturn the new law, and have begun circulating petitions to recall some lawmakers. GOP supporters are circulating their own recall petitions, directed at the Democrats.
Walker defended the bill, which he had proposed as part of an austerity package designed to balance the state’s finances by increasing employee contributions for healthcare and pension benefits.
“In the end, this bill goes back to what we said last fall,” the Republican governor 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. “What we’re doing here in Wisconsin is leading the way with a better alternative,” he said.
A few hundred protestors shouting, “Shame, shame!” could be heard from inside the room where the signing ceremony was held.
Friday’s signing was the latest development in a month of protests and demonstrations by unionists and their Democratic allies, a fight that has turned Wisconsin into a national political battleground. Other Midwestern states are considering measures similar to Wisconsin’s.
Under the new law, most Wisconsin public employees’ unions will not be able to bargain for health and pension benefits and will be limited in what they can seek in pay raises. Some provisions, including automatic dues payment, will be modified. Police and firefighters are excluded from the measure.
As the protests continued, public employees’ unions said they were prepared to pay more money for health insurance and pension benefits, but they balked at having their collective bargain rights restrained.
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 maneuver 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,” Larson said. “This movement isn’t going to stop just because Walker decided to sign the bill and kill workers’ rights.”
“I think it’s unfortunate that Walker continues to ignore the will of the people of Wisconsin,” Larson said in a telephone interview.
John Corcoran, a Madison resident and member of the ironworkers union, said he was 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 expected the law to withstand legal challenges.
During the standoff, Walker threatened to lay off 1,500 public employees. On Friday, he canceled the layoff warnings.
Haggerty reported from Madison and Muskal reported from Los Angeles.