(Reuters) - When the two sides in Wisconsin's bitter battle over the future of the state's unionized public employees converged on the Capitol on Saturday for dueling rallies, the fear was trouble would break out.
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Instead, the day was marked by a surprising civility when the shouting stopped and the one-on-one conversations began.
The slogans they had chanted had highlighted the stark differences that separated them.
"Kill the bill!" cried the opponents of Republican Governor Scott Walker's proposal to cut the pay and benefits of unionized public workers and sharply reduce their collective bargaining rights. "Pass the bill!" supporters of the proposal shouted back.
But aside from a few outsiders -- like AFL-CIO chief Rich Trumka here to back opponents of the measure, and Andrew Breitbart, the conservative provocateur who appeared at the Tea Party-backed rally to support Walker -- the people on hand were from Wisconsin itself and these neighbors were remarkably civil despite their sharp disagreements.
Wisconsonites are united, even in times like this, by many things, including a love of University of Wisconsin, Madison, athletics and the program's strutting mascot Bucky the Badger; a devotion to the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers NFL football team; and, of course, a love of beer, brought to the state by its German settlers and honed by brewers whose names are part of American history: Pabst, Schlitz, Miller and Blatz.
So when the opposing rallies ended here on Saturday, many of the demonstrators retired to the numerous bars in the Capitol's shadow, like The Old Fashioned Tavern & Restaurant, with its 50 beers on tap -- all from Wisconsin -- and another 100 in bottles, 99 of them from the Badger state. The one other, from neighboring Minnesota, is listed under imports.
Over pints of Evil Doppleganger Double Mai Bock and Lost Lake Pilsner, knots of demonstrators debated the questions that have galvanized union employees across the country and brought the business of the state legislature to a standstill. Is Walker's proposal part of the Republican's effort to put the state's finances in order, a repudiation of the state's long history of progressive politics, or the latest example of that tradition?
Zog Begolli, a 23-year-old bill opponent, met four bill supporters at the Old Fashioned when they helped him get a drink at the crowded bar. "They allowed me to get closer so I could order a beer," Begolli said.
"Beer is something we can all agree on," said Randy Otto, 59, from Lake Mills, one of the bill supporters who let Begolli squeeze in.
"I was outnumbered," Begolli said. "But the conversation was civil."
Outside the numbers were reversed. Of the estimated 55,000 people attending Saturday's demonstrations, probably fewer than 5,000 were Tea Party types backing Walker and his fellow Republicans.
Begolli said he agreed with the bill's supporters that, in the state's current budget crisis, public employees can help by paying more for their health care and retirement benefits. But he says the part of Walker's bill curtailing collective bargaining by unionized state employees is "not about fiscal issues. It's an attack on unions."
Dave Andera, a 59-year old investment adviser from Milwaukee, has no problem with that. He thinks public workers should not be unionized and believes Walker is following in the progressive footsteps of the state's great Robert La Follette by facing down organized labor.
"Wisconsin has always been in the forefront of change," he said. "And we're in the forefront again."
Neither Andera nor Begolli believed he had changed the other's mind during their 30-minute conversation at the Old Fashioned. But both thought the legislators inside the Capitol could learn something from the exchange.
"I think the more meaningful discussions this week have occurred outside the capitol," Andera said.
"You can disagree without being disagreeable," Begolli said. "That's exactly what we need to see inside the State Capitol."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)
Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.
03/07/2011 5:01 PM EST
The Atlantic reports that at one town hall meeting in Wisconsin, one GOP state senator faced "loud opposition" to a proposed compromise.
03/04/2011 1:04 AM EST
Judge Orders Protesters Out Of Capitol
About 50 pro-union protesters peacefully left the state Capitol late Thursday after a judge ruled they could no longer spend the night to show their opposition to Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate nearly all collective bargaining rights for public workers.
The judge also ruled the state had violated the public's free speech and assembly rights by restricting access to the building.
03/03/2011 5:00 PM EST
Layoff Notices To Come Friday
AP reports that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says he will issue layoff notices to 1,500 state employees Friday if his union bill doesn't pass by then:
Walker also said in an interview with The Associated Press that he is negotiating with Democrats who stymied passage of the bill by leaving the state for changes to the proposal that would get them to return. Walker said he won't compromise on the collective bargaining issue or anything that saves the state money.
"I can't take any of that off the table," he said.
03/03/2011 11:16 AM EST
New Research Numbers
HuffPost's Mark Blumenthal writes:
A new survey released this morning by the Pew Research Center is the first to provide a clear before-and-after snapshot of national attitudes toward labor unions in the wake of the ongoing protests and budget conflict in Wisconsin:
The public’s overall views of labor unions have changed little through the lengthy stalemate between Wisconsin’s governor and the state’s public employee unions over collective bargaining rights. About half (47%) say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions compared with 39% who have an unfavorable opinion. In early February, 45% expressed a favorable opinion of unions and 41% said they had an unfavorable view. However, liberal Democrats and people in union households are more likely to say they have a very favorable opinion of labor unions than they were just weeks ago.
See the Pew Research report for their complete analysis and full results by party, ideology and union membership subgroups. The Pew Center had also conducted an in-depth survey on unions in early February, just before Walker released the budget bill that sparked the protests.
03/02/2011 6:42 PM EST
Man Cited For Unplugging Fox Equipment
The City of Madison has filed a police report charging a 23-year-old man for "disorderly conduct" after he unplugged extension cords from a Fox News vehicle. Read the full report here.
03/02/2011 6:00 PM EST
West Virginia Approves Pay Hikes For Public Workers
Adding another state into the debate on public workers, West Virginia's Herald-Dispatch reports:
West Virginia's public employees would reap pay raises averaging 2 percent this year, with a second year of increases promised to teachers and school workers, under a proposal advanced Wednesday to the state Senate by the House.
But the 78-22 vote reflected GOP-led concerns that increasing state spending threatens a stable budgetary picture that has so far allowed West Virginia to avoid deficits and the painful choices they can force. Foes also contrasted the pay hikes with the state's continuing unemployment woes.
Full story here.
03/02/2011 5:44 PM EST
Update: Ohio Bill Would Jail Striking Librarians
More details have surfaced on Ohio's controversial SB 5, which just passed the state senate.
Senate Bill 5 would prohibit public-employee unions representing teachers, librarians, toll collectors and others from bargaining over health benefits, pensions and working conditions. Under the bill, unions could still negotiate wages, but striking would be prohibited for all public workers, taking away a major bargaining chip. Workers could face a fine of up to $1,000, or 30 days in jail, if they go on strike.
A Twitter campaign, #standupOH, has already mounted. As user @escapetochengdu tweeted, "The bill that just passed Ohio Senate allows the government to jail striking librarians for 30 days. Despicable."
Read the whole Wall Street Journal story here.
03/02/2011 5:25 PM EST
Ohio Senate Passes Controversial Anti-Union Bill
The bill put forth by an Ohio panel earlier today has passed the state senate, TPM reports:
The Ohio State Senate just passed the controversial SB 5, aimed a limiting unionized state employees' ability to collectively bargain or go on strike.
In an indication of how divisive the legislation is in the Buckeye State, the final vote in the Senate was 17-16.
Gov. John Kasich (R) has endorsed the measure and is expected to sign it when it reaches his desk.
Full story here.
03/02/2011 5:18 PM EST
'Runaway Senator' Tourism Campaign Goes Viral
A tourism campaign leveraging the Wisconsin senators who fled to Rockford, Illinois has gone viral. The push, "Hide Away In Rockford," hawks "collectively bargained" rates to some of the town's best tourist attractions.
“Unlike Wisconsin’s state senators, this video isn’t low key; it’s been a real runaway hit," said Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB) President/CEO John Groh of the campaign's success.
Watch the promotional video here.
03/02/2011 4:48 PM EST
Polls: Polarized Wisconsin Leans Toward Unions
HuffPost's resident pollster Mark Blumenthal reports:
WASHINGTON -- A automated telephone poll conducted this week in Wisconsin by the Democratic-affiliated firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) largely confirms other recent polls showing public support for collective bargaining rights for unions and, by a narrow margin, more opposition than support for the agenda of Gov. Scott Walker (R). Some caution is in order, however, about several vote preference questions included in the same survey.
Despite the ongoing coverage and national interest in the controversy, all of the opinion surveys taken within Wisconsin so far have had sponsors with partisan ties, and each has taken a different approach to the questions asked. Where their questions have been similar, however, we can begin to compare the results.
Read more here.