- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Thousands of people descended on the Wisconsin state Capitol again Wednesday to protest a bill that would strip most public employees of their collective bargaining rights, but Gov. Scott Walker insisted he has the votes to pass the measure.

On the second consecutive day of demonstrations, Mr. Walker said he was open to making changes in the legislation, the boldest anti-union proposal in the nation. But he said he would not “fundamentally undermine the principles” of the bill, which he says is needed to help balance a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and avoid widespread layoffs.

“We’re at a point of crisis,” Mr. Walker said.

The full Legislature could begin voting on the proposal as early as Thursday.

More than 13,000 protesters gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday for a 17-hour public hearing on the measure. Thousands more came Wednesday, with hundreds chanting, “Recall Walker now!” outside the governor’s office.

If adopted, the bill would mark an especially dramatic shift for Wisconsin, which was the first state to pass a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — the national union representing all non-federal public employees — was founded in 1936 in Madison.

There were some signs that support for the plan may be waning among Republicans, who control the Legislature. Senate Republicans met in secret Wednesday morning to discuss the bill. Asked where GOP senators stood on Mr. Walker’s proposal, Sen. Dan Kapanke of La Crosse told the Associated Press: “That’s a really good question. I don’t know.”

The protests have been larger and more sustained than any in Madison in decades. More than 1,000 protesters, many of whom spent the night in sleeping bags on the floor of the Rotunda, shouted, “Kill this bill!” on Wednesday.

In Madison, more than 40 percent of the 2,600 union-covered teachers and staff called in sick, forcing the superintendent to call off classes Wednesday in the state’s second-largest district. No other widespread sickouts were reported at any other school, according to the state teachers union that represents 98,000 teachers and staff.

Prisons, which are staffed by unionized guards, who would lose their bargaining rights under the plan, were operating as normal without any unusual absences, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Linda Eggert.

Mr. 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.

Before Tuesday’s marathon hearing, Republican leaders in the Senate and Assembly said they had enough votes to pass the bill as Mr. Walker proposed.

Scott Spector, a lobbyist for AFT-Wisconsin, which represents about 17,000 public employees, said the demonstrations were having an effect on lawmakers.

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.

“The Legislature has pushed these employees off the cliff, but the Republicans have decided to jump with them,” said Sen. Bob Jauch, one of 14 Democrats in the 33-member chamber.

While other states have proposed bills curtailing labor rights, Wisconsin’s measure is the most aggressive anti-union move to solve budget problems. It would end most 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 Republican Rep. Robin Vos called a “citizen filibuster,” which kept the meeting going until 3 a.m. Wednesday.

Two floors below the hearing, dozens of teaching assistants and students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison poured into the Capitol Rotunda late Tuesday evening, putting down sleeping bags and blankets. Many were asleep on the floor when the hearing ended.

“I just think it’s really crappy,” said Alison Port, a 19-year-old freshman from Wauwatosa. “Let’s take all the rights away. If he starts here, where’s he going to stop? What else is he going to throw at us? It’s only going to get more extreme.”

But when voters elected Mr. 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.

Mr. Walker’s plan would make workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. State employees’ 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 leverage, public employees were promised no furloughs or layoffs. Mr. 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.

Mr. Walker has argued that the public employee concessions are modest considering what private-sector workers have suffered during the recession. Democratic opponents and union leaders said Mr. Walker’s real motive is to strike back at political opponents who have supported Democrats over the years.

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