Wisconsin Republicans on Sunday upped the pressure on Democrats who fled to Illinois to return home and vote on an anti-union bill, with the governor calling them obstructionists and a GOP lawmaker threatening to convene without them.
Gov. Scott Walker said the 14 minority Democrats who left Madison on Thursday were failing to do their jobs by "hiding out" in another state. And Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said his chamber would meet Tuesday to act on non-spending bills and confirm some of the governor's appointees even if the Democrats don't show up — a scenario that should outrage their constituents.
Senate Democrats acknowledged that the 19 Republicans could pass any item that doesn't spend state money in their absence. The budget-repair bill they have been blocking requires a quorum of 20 senators to pass, while other measures require only a simple majority of the chamber's 33 members.
Nonetheless, Democrats said they were standing firm in their opposition to the budget-repair bill, which would take away the right of most public employees to collectively bargain for their benefits and working conditions. Hundreds of protesters filled the Capitol for a sixth straight day, noisily calling on Walker to drop the plan they consider an assault on workers' rights.
Mary Bell, the president of Wisconsin's powerful teachers' union, called on teachers to return to work as scheduled Monday rather than continue absences to protest that have shut down public schools across the state. Some districts, such as Madison public schools, were not scheduled to take President's Day off. However, the Madison district said it would cancel Monday's classes because of expected teacher protests.
Bell said unions agreed to cuts in health care and retirement benefits that could reduce take-home pay for many workers by about 8 percent, and it was time for the Republican governor to compromise.
In a Sunday morning interview from Madison with Fox News, Walker said he did not believe union leaders were really interested in giving up their benefits and cities, school districts and counties will need weakened unions to cut spending for years to come. Walker said he would not compromise and predicted Wisconsin would pave the way for other states to follow suit, much like it did with welfare reform and school vouchers in the 1990s.
"We're willing to take this as long as it takes because in the end we're doing the right thing," Walker said.
The sweeping measure led to massive protests that started Tuesday and have gained steam, with an estimated 68,000 people turning out Saturday inside and around the Capitol. Most opposed the bill, but the day marked the first time that a significant contingent of Walker supporters showed up to counter-protest.
Sunday's crowd was much smaller, as snow and freezing rain moved the protest inside the Capitol. But the crowd swelled throughout the day, and protesters chanted for hours in opposition to the bill. Another large protest was expected Monday, when many state workers are being furloughed to save money.
Mariah Clark, an emergency medical technician at University of Wisconsin hospital and a volunteer firefighter, said she stands to lose $250 per month from her income with the benefits concessions. Standing on a bench holding a sign reading "EMT. Firefighter. Not the public enemy," she said the pay cut would hurt but that's not why she was protesting.
"I really believe this is about workers everywhere, not just public employees," said Clark, 29. "It's pathetic that in Wisconsin, one of the places where the labor movement started, that this would happen."
Jacob Cedillo Tootalian, a 27-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student and teaching assistant, slept overnight in the Capitol for a third time this week as part of a union representing teaching assistants. He said he was worried about paying more for his health insurance and tuition, but what kept him protesting was the possibility of losing the union.
"Normalcy would be nice," he said. "But it seems the governor and the state Republicans are intent on taking these rights away."
The bill would require government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs and limit collective bargaining to pay increases less than the Consumer Price Index unless approved in a local referendum. Workers could not negotiate their benefits and working conditions. Unions could not force their workers to pay dues, and would face a vote every year to remain certified.
Walker denied the bill was an attempt at "union busting" and said the measure is needed to deal with the state's projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall for the two-year period that ends June 30, 2013. He told Fox News he hoped the senators would return to work early this week.
Speaking from "an undisclosed location in northern Illinois," Sen. Minority Leader Mark Miller of Monona said he and others would not come back until Walker was ready to negotiate. He said Fitzgerald's threats to pass non-spending measures would not faze them, saying they had the votes to pass even if the Democrats were present.
"The big issue we're dealing with is whether or not we should strip workers' rights and everything else is just a diversion," he said.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who remained at a Chicago hotel, said Democrats have reached out to Walker's administration but their phone calls have not been returned. He said it may take a coalition of moderate Republicans in the Senate to try to negotiate an end to the stalemate.
One of them, Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, has proposed suspending collective bargaining rights temporarily to get through the state's two-year budget, but then restoring them in 2013.
Also Sunday, cornerback Charles Woodson, a member of the NFL Players Association, became the latest Green Bay Packer to back the public employees' cause. NFL owners and the players' union are locked in their own fight over a collective bargaining agreement. Along with Woodson, seven other current and former Packers have expressed support for the protesters.
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
- Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald