A dramatic week of angry protests over a bill in the Wisconsin Legislature that would radically limit collective bargaining for state employees came to a boil Thursday with 14 Democratic senators dodging a vote in the Republican-led chamber by fleeing the state and efforts by state police to track them down.
The passage of the budget repair bill that had the anti-union provisions — which seemed certain in the state’s GOP-led Legislature — would deal an enormous blow to union supporters nationwide and likely buoy efforts in other states looking for ways to cut massive deficits.
The dispute also went national, with Washington’s top elected Democrats and Republicans weighing in Wednesday and Thursday.
More than 25,000 protesters stormed the state Capitol building on Thursday, aided by planned sickouts by thousands of workers, including teachers. There was also an overnight sleep-in by protesters, and police said Thursday that the Capitol will be kept open around the clock.
Republicans hold a 19-14 edge in the Senate, but the chamber’s rules define the quorum needed to do business as 20 senators — hence, the unanimous Democratic run for the border.
State Sen. Mark Miller called into CNN on Thursday with a list of demands, saying Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislative leaders had to remove “provisions that completely eliminate the ability of workers … to negotiate on a fair basis with their employers.”
Mr. Miller did not tell CNN where he was. The Associated Press in Madison reported that all the Democratic lawmakers had left the state.
Via Twitter, state Sen. Lena Taylor said she was “doing the people’s business. Power to the PEOPLE.” On Thursday, Democrats in the Legislature’s lower house wore orange T-shirts with the slogan “fighting for working families” over their more formal shirts and dresses.
Mr. Walker called the walkout disrespectful of the democratic process and of the Legislature as an institution.
“Their actions by leaving the state and hiding from voting are disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of public employees who showed up to work today and the millions of taxpayers they represent,” he said.
Many union supporters camped out with signs, filling several floors of the massive Statehouse Rotunda as most angrily demanded the ouster of newly elected Mr. Walker, who has been likened to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. A couple of demonstrators put a sign on the outside of the state Capitol encouraging the Democrats to flee the state: “Run Dems Run.”
The governor put the National Guard on alert this week, fearing a statewide government-worker walkout, which could affect such facilities as state prisons.
The measure, which had been greenlighted for votes in the state Assembly and state Senate after passage in committees on Wednesday, drew criticism from President Obama, who in a taped interview broadcast by a Milwaukee television station Thursday said it’s important for states not to vilify state employees amid budget crises.
“Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like an assault on unions,” the president said.
The bill, which does not affect the union status of public safety workers such as the state police, is estimated to save the state $300 million over two years.
It also calls on Wisconsin state, local and education employees, including the state’s public school teachers, to double their contributions for health care and pay for half of their pension costs. The bill also would bar unions from negotiating pay increases higher than the rate of inflation without a public referendum.
Although public-employee unions would not be barred, they could not force dues payments and would have to recertify themselves every year. Mr. Walker has said the concessions were proposed as a way to avoid furloughs or layoffs, and he has said he may have to lay off up to 6,000 state workers if the bill fails.
Mr. Walker also received support from Washington on Thursday when House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, responded pointedly to the president’s comments on the Wisconsin budget bill. He said Republican governors across the nation are handling their governments’ money challenges and that Mr. Obama was piling on against them while shirking his own budget responsibilities.
“Republicans in Congress — and reform-minded GOP governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich [of Ohio] and Chris Christie [of New Jersey] — are daring to speak the truth about the dire fiscal challenges Americans face at all levels of government, and daring to commit themselves to solutions that will liberate our economy and help put our citizens on a path to prosperity,” Mr. Boehner said.
“I’m disappointed that instead of providing similar leadership from the White House, the president has chosen to attack leaders such as Gov. Walker, who are listening to the people and confronting problems that have been neglected for years at the expense of jobs and economic growth. … Rather than shouting down those in office who speak honestly about the challenges we face, the president and his advisers should lead,” Mr. Boehner said.
Wisconsin is not alone in its desire to limit organized labor. Ohio and Michigan also are considering legislation to remove collective-bargaining agreements by forcing union workers to absorb more costs for health care premiums and make other concessions.
Ohio lawmakers met Thursday for the first hearings on Senate Bill 5, the Buckeye State’s own proposed legislation to end collective bargaining for state employees and to cut back bargaining efforts at the local government level.
As in Madison, Wis., angry public union workers clashed with red-shirt-wearing tea party activists, who came out in force in Columbus, Ohio, to support the measure.
In financially strapped Michigan, where new Republican Gov. Rick Snyder announced a far leaner budget Thursday, one proposal before the Legislature calls for an end to the prevailing-wage law. As it stands, the law restricts granting government construction contracts to low bidders unless the selected company agrees to pay union wages — a policy that adds about 10 percent to project costs.
Another Michigan proposal under consideration in Lansing is “local right-to-work” laws, which would allow counties and municipalities to stop workers from being forced to pay union dues as a condition of their employment.
While some 30 states have collective-bargaining laws for state government employees, Paul Kersey, the director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich., said unions have wrongly argued that collective bargaining is a right.
Rather, he said, it’s not a right at all but “a prerogative that some states have extended and some have eliminated as they see fit” and states have got to get their fiscal houses in order.
“The Supreme Court has ruled on this. They have said no — local governments and state governments are not obligated to bargain collectively with employees,” Mr. Kersey said. “The unions have been given a privilege and they have abused that privilege and now the states are being forced to respond.”
Government employee unions and their collective-bargaining stances, he said, have “spun out of control” and are jeopardizing services for which the general populace has paid its taxes.
“The state of Wisconsin, like Michigan, like Ohio and other upper-Midwest states, put in collective bargaining to government employees, following the same model we have for the private sector,” he said. “Now, you’ve got government employees bargaining over how they are going to provide essential services. These are not private-sector operations that have customers. These are government operations that have taxpayers. You combine that with what is really a clunky private-sector law and what you have is something that has added tremendously to the cost of government across this region,” he said.
In Michigan, for example, the Mackinac Center’s research on the Public Employment Relations Act found a discrepancy with government employee benefits that were far out of line with those benefits in the private sector, adding $5.7 billion in additional costs each year.
“A lot of that, not all, was collectively bargained,” Mr. Kersey said.
Mr. Kersey also predicted that the tumult in Madison paints unions and collective-bargaining rights in the worst possible light.
“How the unions respond is up to the unions,” he says of the outrage and protests staged in Wisconsin this week. “But if they want to make the case that collective bargaining can be done and be constructive, this isn’t the way to do it, calling strikes, making threats.”
The Democratic lawmakers’ run for the road is not the first time their party has resorted to such stratagems. In 2003, 11 Texas Democratic legislators fled to neighboring New Mexico for 46 days to deny a quorum to a Republican-favored redistricting bill. The plan eventually passed.