MADISON, Wis. — With the labor movement suffering an epic defeat in Wisconsin, union leaders plan to use the setback to fire up their members nationwide and mount a major counterattack against Republicans at the ballot box in 2012.
Wisconsin's measure stripping public employees of most bargaining rights swiftly advanced to GOP Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday, and he promised to sign it as soon as possible. But labor leaders say the events in Wisconsin have helped galvanize support for unions across the country. They hope to use the momentum to help fight off other attacks and grow their membership.
Said the president of the AFL-CIO: "I guess I ought to say thank you particularly to Scott Walker. We should have invited him here today to receive the Mobilizer of the Year award from us!"
As several states seek to follow Wisconsin's lead, newly invigorated public unions are looking ahead to the next election. Democrats are pressing to recall Republican opponents of organized labor and turn the debate into a focal point of next year's campaign.
The Wisconsin Assembly voted 53-42 Thursday to pass the bill after about three hours of discussion, far less than the 61-hour, three-day marathon it took to approve a previous version two weeks ago.
The passage drew shouts of "shame, shame, shame" from protesters in the gallery and came only a day after dramatic action in the Republican-controlled Senate, which used a legislative maneuver Wednesday to quickly adopt the bill without any of the 14 Democrats who fled to Illinois three weeks ago.
Democrats said their counterattack efforts were already beginning to bear fruit in the form of donations: The party's Wisconsin chapter said it raised $300,000 overnight and has collected $800,000 from 32,000 donors in just five days.
Party chairman Mike Tate said Senate Democrats have raised $750,000 over the past month alone.
Republicans said they were simply doing what voters wanted.
In last year's election, "people spoke very clearly and very loudly and said they wanted government to change here in Madison," Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said. "It's a tough vote, but it's the right vote. People are sick of the status quo."
Shortly before the vote, police had to move dozens of protesters who were sitting just outside the Assembly chamber doors, blocking the way for lawmakers. Officers dragged many of them away, but there were no arrests.
The protesters have been a constant presence in the building for more than three weeks, with their numbers swelling to more than 80,000 for one weekend rally. About 1,800 were in the building Thursday, and hundreds screamed outside the chamber doors before the vote.
Walker had repeatedly argued that ending collective bargaining would give local governments the flexibility they needed to confront the cuts in state aid necessary to fix Wisconsin's deficit, which is projected to grow to $3.6 billion deficit over several years.
"This is ultimately about a commitment to the future, so our children don't face even more dire consequences than what we face today," Walker said at a news conference in the West Allis community of Milwaukee. He said the bill would prevent layoffs of 1,500 state workers.
His proposal touched off a national debate over labor rights for public employees, and its implementation would be a key victory for Republicans, many of whom have targeted unions in efforts to slash government spending.
Labor organizations have already pledged to pour more than $30 million into efforts to stop legislation in dozens of states seeking to limit public workers' bargaining rights or otherwise curb union power. Union officials are helping to mobilize protesters in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states to keep the pressure on.
"Gov. Walker's overreaching has brought us to this moment to be able to talk about jobs, to be able to talk about the right to collective bargaining," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Thursday in Washington. "This is the debate we've wanted to have for 25 years. Well, guess what? Suddenly the debate came to us."
In Ohio, the Republican-led state Senate has passed similar legislation to restrict collective bargaining, and a House panel is considering the measure.
The debate is sure to sow opposition to the GOP agenda, said Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Seth Bringman, and it was "also encouraging many Republican, middle-class voters who have not voted for our candidates in the past to maybe come over to our side."
Walker and Republicans argued from the outset that the collective bargaining measures were directly related to balancing the budget. For weeks, they refused to separate the two ideas.
The fact that they did so in the end to pass the legislation shows that their true intent was to abolish unions, said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca.
"To me the charade is over," Barca said.
In the aftermath of the debate, eight Republican senators and six Democrats are being targeted for recalls. Recall efforts against Walker cannot start until Nov. 3.
Kristopher Rowe, the main organizer of efforts to recall Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, said the group has collected about $3,000 in donations since Wednesday's Senate vote. Rowe said the group has "several thousand signatures" and more than 1,000 volunteers to canvass for more.
Darling, who won her 2008 election by 1,007 votes, said she stands by her vote and will continue to defend the position if drawn into a recall election.
"The test is what the voters decide to do," Darling said. "I'm just going to keep going to work for the people, and I'm certainly going to defend this position because this is what I was sent here to do in the last election."
The political fallout from Walker's agenda could continue for years – through recall efforts and possible court action and on the campaign trail.
"Once you fundamentally threaten the existence of unions, key support for the Democratic Party, there's no way to settle this except in future elections," said University of Wisconsin political science professor Charles Franklin.
Senate Democrats who fled to Illinois were on their way back Thursday, but they were not expected to return to the Capitol because the Senate will not be in session again until April 5.
Also Thursday, the Justice Department said it was investigating several death threats against Republican senators.
Marty Beil, director of the state's largest public employees union, which represents 20,000 workers, said Walker had taken the state "far away from its core values."
"But after each dark night, there comes a new day," Beil said. "And this new day starts today, as Wisconsin citizens across the state answer this insult by pouring their energy into recalling Wisconsin senators who have sold their souls to the highest bidder."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Todd Richmond, Dinesh Ramde and Jason Smathers, and videographer Robert Ray in Madison; Carrie Antlfinger in West Allis; and Sam Hananel and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington.