MADISON, Wis. — Thousands of teachers, students and prison guards descended on the Wisconsin Capitol on Wednesday to fight a move to strip government workers of union rights in the first state to grant them more than a half-century ago, but Republican leaders said the changes they sought would not be made.
The Statehouse filled with as many as 10,000 demonstrators who chanted, sang the national anthem and beat drums for hours in demonstrations unlike any seen in Madison in decades. The noise in the rotunda rose to the level of a chainsaw, and many Madison teachers joined the protest by calling in sick in such numbers that the district – the state's second-largest – had to cancel classes.
The new Republican governor, Scott Walker, is seeking passage of the nation's most aggressive anti-union proposal, which was moving swiftly through the GOP-led Legislature. Legislative leaders said they would make minor changes to the bill, but would keep the provision to remove collective bargaining rights.
"It is momentous and I think people around the state are going to welcome it," said Sen. Alberta Darling, the co-chair of the budget committee that planned to pass the bill Wednesday night. Leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate and Assembly said it would pass there starting Thursday.
The move would mark a dramatic shift for Wisconsin, which passed a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959 and was the birthplace of the national union representing all non-federal public employees.
As protesters chanted "Recall Walker now!" outside the governor's office, Walker insisted he has the votes to pass the measure, which he says is needed to help balance a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and avoid widespread layoffs.
Walker said he appreciated protestors' concerns, but taxpayers "need to be heard as well." He said he would not do anything to "fundamentally undermine the principles" of the bill.
"We're at a point of crisis," the governor said.
In an interview with Milwaukee television station WTMJ, President Barack Obama said he was monitoring the situation in Madison and acknowledged the need for budget cuts. But, he said, pushing public employees away from the bargaining table "seems like more of an assault on unions."
As the bill appeared ready to advance, tensions rose in the Capitol. Police roamed the halls, restricted access to some rooms and stood watch outside the governor's office. The crowd swelled early in the evening as the budget committee prepared to start taking votes.
Republican-backed changes to the bill would extend a grievance procedure to public workers who don't have one and require more oversight and put a deadline on changes Walker's administration can make to the Medicaid program and the sale of public power plants.
In addition to eliminating collective bargaining rights, the legislation also would make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage – increases Walker calls "modest" compared with those in the private sector.
More than 13,000 protesters gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday for a 17-hour public hearing on the measure. Thousands more came Wednesday.
"I'm fighting for my home and my career," said Virginia Welle, a 30-year-old teacher at Chippewa Falls High School. She said she and her husband, who also is a teacher, each stand to lose $5,000 a year in higher pension and health care contributions.
Welle said she never could get that money back since the unions would be unable to bargain over benefits under Walker's plan.
The protests have been larger and more sustained than any in Madison in decades. Dozens of protesters spent the night in sleeping bags on the floor of the Rotunda. A noise monitor in the Rotunda registered 105 decibels at midday Wednesday – about as loud as a power mower or chainsaw.
Beyond the Statehouse, more than 40 percent of the 2,600 union-covered teachers and school staff in Madison called in sick.
On Wednesday night, the head of the 98,000-member statewide teachers union called on all Wisconsin residents to come to the Capitol for the Thursday votes in the Senate and Assembly. Several districts – including Madison for a second day – canceled Thursday classes, which was expected to swell the number of protesters.
Prisons, which are staffed by unionized guards who would lose their bargaining rights under the plan, were operating Wednesday without any unusual absences, according to a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.
Walker has said he would call out the National Guard to staff the prisons if necessary. A union leader for prison workers did not immediately return messages.
Union representatives were attempting to sway key moderates for a compromise, but Democrats said the bill would be tough to stop. Democrats lost the governor's office and control of the Legislature in the November midterm elections.
While other states have proposed bills curtailing labor rights, Wisconsin's measure is the most aggressive anti-union move yet to solve state budget problems. It would end collective bargaining for state, county and local workers, except for police, firefighters and the state patrol.
Protesters targeted the budget committee's public hearing Tuesday to launch what the committee co-chairman called a "citizen filibuster," which kept the meeting going until 3 a.m. Wednesday.
Wisconsin has long been a bastion for workers' rights. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was founded in 1936 in Madison.
But when voters elected Walker, an outspoken conservative, along with GOP majorities in both legislative chambers, it set the stage for a dramatic reversal of Wisconsin's labor history.
Under Walker's plan, state employees' share of pension and health care costs would go up by an average of 8 percent. The changes would save the state $30 million by June 30 and $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
Unions still could represent workers, but could not seek pay increases above those pegged to the Consumer Price Index unless approved by a public referendum. Unions also could not force employees to pay dues and would have to hold annual votes to stay organized.
In exchange for bearing more costs and losing bargaining leverage, public employees were promised no furloughs or layoffs. Walker has threatened to order layoffs of up to 6,000 state workers if the measure does not pass.
Wisconsin is one of about 30 states with collective bargaining laws covering state and local workers.
Walker has argued the concessions are modest compared with those suffered by many other Americans. Democratic opponents and union leaders say his real motive is to strike back at political opponents who have supported Democrats over the years.