MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Thousands of protesters pushed past security, climbed through windows and flooded the Wisconsin Capitol on Wednesday night after Senate Republicans pushed through a plan to strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights.
Within an hour and a half of the vote, the protesters had seized the building’s lower floors, creating an ear-splitting free-for-all of pounding drums, screaming chants, horns and whistles. Police gave up guarding the building entrances and retreated to the third floor.
The state Department of Administration, which operates the building, estimated the crowd at about 7,000 people. There were no reports of violence as of late Wednesday evening. DOA spokesman Tim Donovan said no one had been arrested as of late Wednesday evening. By midnight dozens of protesters had bedded down in the building’s corridors and alcoves. Some slept in front of the office of Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon.
Donovan said officials decided not to try to clear the building because they want to avoid confrontation.
“The more talking we can do, the less this devolves into something unpleasant,” he said.
The bill would require public sector workers to contribute more to their pensions and health care, in what would amount to an 8 percent pay cut for the workers, on average. It also would prohibit most of them from collectively bargaining for their working conditions.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the plan’s chief author, says the bill will help fill the state’s current $137 million shortfall and a $3.6 billion hole in the state’s upcoming two-year budget. He said limiting collective bargaining rights for public workers will give local governments more flexibility to handle deep cuts in state aid.
Democrats and unions say the attack on collective bargaining is purely political, and that Republicans are simply trying to financially cripple the labor movement, a pillar of Democratic Party strength.
The Capitol has been a flashpoint for demonstrations since the bill was introduced about three weeks ago. Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the plan’s chief author, has said the bill is needed to help fill the state’s $137 million Senate Democrats were so outraged at the proposal they fled the state to block a vote in that chamber. They haven’t been seen in Madison for weeks.
Tens of thousands of people spent days jamming the area around the building, setting up a makeshift village inside complete with a day care center and signs plastered on the walls. Hundreds slept overnight on the floor for about two weeks.
Police imposed tighter access restrictions last week, closing down entrances. They persuaded the last overnighters to leave on the evening of March 3. The protests had been confined to the ground floor and the lawns until Wednesday evening, when frustrated Senate Republicans used a procedural maneuver to pass the bill without the minority Democrats.
As word spread that the vote was coming, hundreds of protesters moved into the building before its official 6 p.m. closing time and jammed the corridors in front of the Senate chamber, chanting “shame.”
Protester Damon Terrell, 19, called Senate vote a “despicable travesty.”
“They know what they’re doing is wrong,” he said. “Which child hides what they were doing: the one doing their homework or the one that was messing around?”
Police held their positions at the Capitol for a time after the vote, but more and more protesters found a way in. Police believe some climbed through windows, Donovan said. He initially said protesters broke windows and door handles, but later backed off that statement, saying he wasn’t sure that was true.
Finally police commanders decided to pull officers off guard duty at all the ground floor entrances, he said.
“The efforts to secure them weren’t working,” Donovan said. “It would be safer for everybody (if officers withdrew).”
Police addressed protesters repeatedly over the building’s public address system, warning them the building had been closed for hours and they had no right to remain inside. No one could hear the warnings over the din as protesters banged buckets, blew whistles and shouted “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Who’s house? Our house!”
The state Assembly was scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday morning, the last step before it would go to Walker for his signature.
A group of about 150 protesters jammed the Assembly foyer on Wednesday evening, debating whether they should occupy the space indefinitely. They had written the phone number for the American Civil Liberties Union’s local chapter on their arms, ensuring they could call a lawyer if they were arrested.
Later in the evening police again came over the building’s loudspeakers, this time warning people to get off the second-floor skywalks that link the building’s wings because they could collapse. No one listened.
Donovan said police had about an hour’s notice that the Senate was preparing to vote. Commanders tried to put together a reaction plan, but “it turned out to be not enough,” Donovan said.
Asked about the police’s plan, Donovan said officers just hoped to make sure no one got hurt. He didn’t know how many police were still on the scene late Wednesday but said more were on their way.
“The priority is to keep everybody safe,” Donovan said. “We’ll figure out what went wrong another day.”