Largest Protest Yet Fails To Sway Wis. Lawmakers

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Sometimes they cursed each other, sometimes they shook hands, sometimes they walked away from each other in disgust.

None of it — not the ear-splitting chants, the pounding drums or the back-and-forth debate between 70,000 protesters — changed the minds of Wisconsin lawmakers dug into a stalemate over Republican efforts to scrap union rights for almost all public workers.

“The people who are not around the Capitol square are with us,” said Rep. Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester and co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee. “They may have a bunch around the square, but we’ve got the rest on our side.”

After nearly a week of political chaos in Madison, during which tens of thousands of pro-labor protesters turned the Capitol into a campsite that had started to smell like a locker room, supporters of Gov. Scott Walker came out in force Saturday.

They gathered on the muddy east lawn of the Capitol and were soon surrounded by a much larger group of union supporters who countered their chants of “Pass the bill! Pass the bill!” with chants of “Kill the bill! Kill the bill!”

“Go home!” union supporters yelled at Scott Lemke, a 46-year-old machine parts salesman from Cedarburg who wore a hard hat and carried a sign that read “If you don’t like it, quit” on one side, and “If you don’t like that, try you’re fired” on the other.

A lone demonstrator stood between the crowds, saying nothing and holding a sign: “I’m praying that we can all respect each other. Let’s try to understand each other.”

The Wisconsin governor, elected in November’s GOP wave that also gave control of the state Assembly and Senate to Republicans, set off the protests earlier this week by pushing ahead with a measure that would require government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs and largely eliminate their collective bargaining rights.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the crowds that have gotten bigger each day have yet to win over any member of his caucus.

“What they’re getting from individuals back home is stick to your guns, don’t let them get to you,” Fitzgerald said. “Every senator I’ve spoken to today is getting that back home, which is awesome. It’s great to hear from people who are part of a rally … (but) two people you meet at a fish fry or a person who comes up to you at a basketball game, those comments sink in.”

Fitzgerald and other Republicans say the concessions are needed to deal with the state’s projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs of government workers. The move to restrict union rights has also taken hold in other states, including Tennessee and Indiana, where lawmakers have advanced bills to restrict bargaining for teachers’ unions.

The throngs of Walker supporters who arrived in Madison on Saturday for an afternoon rally organized by Tea Party Patriots, the movement’s largest umbrella group, and Americans for Prosperity, carried signs with a fresh set of messages: “Your Gravy Train Is Over … Welcome to the Recession” and “Sorry, we’re late Scott. We work for a living.”

“We pay the bills!” tea party favorite Herman Cain yelled to cheers from the pro-Walker crowd. “This is why you elected Scott Walker, and he’s doing his job. … Wisconsin is broke. My question for the other side is, `What part of broke don’t you understand?”‘

Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate, short of the votes needed to keep Republicans from passing the so-called “budget repair” bill, fled the state on Thursday. They haven’t been seen since, and said Saturday they are more resolved than ever to stay away “as long as it takes” until Walker agrees to negotiate.

“I don’t think he’s really thought it through, to be honest,” Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of Middleton, said Saturday.

Democrats offered again Saturday to agree to the parts of Walker’s proposal, so long as workers retain their right to negotiate with the state as a union.

Fitzgerald said that’s an offer the GOP has rejected for months. The restrictions on collective bargaining rights are necessary so that local governments and the state have the flexibility needed to balance budgets after cuts Walker plans to announce next month, he said.

Walker, who was spending time with his family Saturday and didn’t appear in public, also rejected the Democrats offer. His spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said the fastest way to end the stalemate was for Democrats to return and “do their jobs.”

Madison police estimated that 60,000 or more people were outside the Capitol on Saturday, with up to 8,000 more inside. The normally an immaculate building had become a mess of mud-coated floors that reeked from days of protesters standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

Police spokesman Joel DeSpain said there were no arrests or problems during Saturday’s protests. “We’ve seen and shown the world that in Madison, Wis., we can bring people together who disagree strongly on a bill in a peaceful way,” he said.

Steve Boss, 26, a refrigerator technician from Oostburg, carried a sign that read “The Protesters Are All `Sick’ — Wash your Hands,” a reference to the teacher sick-outs that swelled crowds at the Capitol to 40,000 people Friday and raised the noise in its rotunda to earsplitting levels. Boss said the cuts Walker has proposed were painful but needed to fix the state’s financial problems.

“It’s time to address the issue. They (public workers) got to take the same cuts as everyone else,” he said. “It’s a fairness thing.”

Doctors from numerous hospitals set up a station near the Capitol to provide notes to explain public employees’ absences from work. Family physician Lou Sanner, 59, of Madison, said he had given out hundreds of notes. Many of the people he spoke with seemed to be suffering from stress, he said.

“What employers have a right to know is if the patient was assessed by a duly licensed physician about time off of work,” Sanner said. “Employers don’t have a right to know the nature of that conversation or the nature of that illness. So it’s as valid as every other work note that I’ve written for the last 30 years.”

John Black, 46, of Madison, said he came out to the rallies in order to help bridge the gap between the pro-labor protesters and Walker’s supporters. He carried signs that asked for a compromise on the budget bill while a friend’s son handed out purple flowers.

“We liked Scott Walker as a change agent, but he moved too quickly and because of that there’s always room for compromise,” Black said.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • T-Bone

    This is sick. They have the average Joe complaining public workers are wealthy. The fat cats want you to vent your anger at the guy driving the plow truck not themselves, as they drive by you in BMW’s. Wonder why money and debt only became a problem AFTER Wall Street was bailed out? Remember it was Reagan who said ” the debts big enough to take care of it self”

    • Matt

      All of this should just be proof that the government is the problem, not the solution. Who cares what side you fall on the less government the better off everyone would be. No benefits for the unions or the businesses just make it all free and equal and let those that work the hardest make the most. That’s fair and what we should all be working toward.

    • Proud of My Dad's Work

      My dad worked all his life for the school system in a “good job”, and one he honored. His wage was printed in the paper for all to see. Irony of it, my sister and I qualified and received reduced priced lunches. And true to my dad’s wishes, his memorial money went to the school system he loved. Trust me, there are teachers and school workers, and public servants that feel the same as my father did. They love what they do, they just want to be treated fairly for a good days job. And they should be.

      • Matt

        Your right there are some out there like your dad, but by the sounds of it your dad wouldn’t throw the students under the school bus to cover their backside.

    • mark from MNTAXWASTE.COM

      @T-Bone Do you even know what President Reagan meant by that. He said that to show the people of America how waste was going crazy in DC. What he meant was people think that by leaving that it would go away and that was not the truth. He used that as an example to bring the spending to the front lines so America can see the waste.

  • Joe

    All of the liberals need to stop whining about this bill, as I would much rather have there be a lot of employees working, that get a fair wage, instead of just a few employees working, that make a lot of money.

    Just last year, the democrats completely overhauled the health care system, but yet our media wasn’t very harsh on the liberals for doing that. However, now that the conversatives want to save our government money, the media is extremely hard on the republicans/conservatives.

    With the healthcare bill, a very large portion of Americans were against it in the polls, and with this law, there’s more people supporting it than there are against it, even though almost all of the local media stations are trying to make it seem as if almost everyone is against this bill.

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  • John

    Shouldn’t teachers that call in with an unexcused sickness be fired?
    Anyone out there have kids? Ever give in to a kid that is having a tantrum? Walker could have probably handled this better, but now I just want him to go through with it because so many people are complaining.
    What about the Wisconsin union leaders? If I was paying into a union and my union leader let this happen, I’d probably be equally upset at him/her.

  • Gary

    Welcome to America! step aside and stop your complaining!!!!

  • Gary

    America is the greatest country in the world!! so why don’t you leave well enough alone? stupid sheep!!

  • My 2 cents

    I agree with Joe. Is’nt it better to have a lot of folks working for a fair wage, then to have a less folks working for a higher wage? If you don’t think so, then maybe YOU should take a voluntary layoff so your co-worker can have HIS raise and keep his benefits.
    What part of BROKE don’t you understand….

  • datruth

    The public workers are willing to negotiate on benefits but Governor Walker doesn’t want to. The Wisconsin State CEO, Governor Walker, and his Board of Directors (Assembly & Senate), would gather have a bunch of unhappy employees than to offend the political orgizations that got them into office. It doesn’t sound like a good way to run a business. It’s the kind of tactics that got unions started in the first place.

  • pat

    look at the picture, big mouths open, more, more, more, gimme, gimme, gimme. Now you Doctors willling to lie for these bums? They should be fired, it isn’t as if they put in a full days work anyway. I have known many people who have quit such jobs because they were told to s”slow down” you are “Making everyone else look bad” One had a bat smash out his window, because he put in a full days work. These protestors are louts and thugs managed by the mob.

  • Another Bob

    Weekends and the minimum wage.

    Brought to you by UNIONS!.

    Read between the lines people.

    • Lori

      Unions granted my mother the rights she deserved. Because she was not the “bread-winner”, she did the same job as the “MEN”, but didnt get the pay. When the Union came in, she was finally for once in her life, treated fairly.
      Do you even know what brought about Unions? Do you even know why they are in place? You need to get your butt back to school and read up on American History. Maybe one of these teachers will take pitty on you and help you out. With out the Union, Women would still be getting the shaft in Wisc and elsewhere. I salute Them!!!

      • Come on...

        Really? We have a department of labor with a $126 BILLION dollar budget and wage discrimination is illegal? Do you really think that we need a UNION to provide equal wages? Give me a break.

  • John

    I’m just curious if anyone posting here is in a Wisconsin union and do you completely blame Walker for the current situation or is there some blame to be shared between Walker and union leaders? If your response is one sided you may not see the whole picture.

  • Neille Sawyer

    The union was offered the chance to negotiate several times. They refused it repeatedly. While unions do have their place ALL unions need to lean when and for what they fight. Several years ago my husbands local union went on strike for 6 weeks. In the end the national union had to step in and tell the local leaders, “Settle now or you will no longer have our support youm are being unreasonable with your demands.” Had the state workers in Wisconsin had someone at the lead who had enough sense to realize that if they had given a bit on the paying for their health benefits, then the removal of collective bargining would not have been included in the bill and no one would be in this mess right now.

    It would be interesting to know just how many of those doing the loudest protesting actually went out and voted either for or against the governor.

  • Richter

    I just have a hard time understanding why paying only 5.8% of your retirement and 12.6% of you health insurance is unreasonable. Or working 180 days per year and having three months off in the summer. It seems the educational system is locked in the last century. perhaps Scot has it right

  • Erik

    Flexibility and nimbleness is the only path to success in today’s global economy. The company/organization/government entity that has the most efficient way to deliver a product or service sets the standard. The private sector is way ahead of the public sector in recognizing and adapting to this reality.

    I get the sense the Teacher’s Union would be better served to find a way to deliver a superior, results-based service rather than pining away for the “old days”.

    There are private sector examples of how the “old way” failed organized labor — see GM and Chrysler. More efficient competition eroded market share resulting in less or no money to pay anyone — neither management nor union. If only Teachers had competition to force them to adapt more quickly.

    LACK OF COMPETITION LEADS TO PROLONGED SURVIVAL OF ANTIQUATED SYSTEMS LIKE TODAY’S LABOR UNIONS. I wonder why a group of forward-thinking teachers doesn’t organize separately using a system based on merit, efficiency and results… THEY WOULD NEVER BE OUT OF WORK OR BENEFITS as the “old guard” withered on the vine.

    I’m sure it was painful to watch buggy whip manufacturers fail too. Cheers to dreaming.

  • lib

    Eric thank you for an articulate argument against what is happening in Wisconsin. A monopoly such as the publlic schools never do as well as when pitted against a competitive market place. Time for the old status quo to go.l

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