Madison, Wisconsin – Despite heavy protests against Republican Governor Scott Walker's 'Budget Repair Bill', the Republican-controlled State Assembly in Wisconsin abruptly passed the bill – which would strip the labour force of its collective bargaining rights – early Friday morning.
The vote ended three straight days of strenuous debate in the Senate, but mass protests appear far from over.
“If I am not carrying this sign, the next one I'm carrying will read 'I work for food',” Jeannie Dahm, a steel worker from Minnesota, told IPS after the vote in the Assembly.
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Starting on Feb. 15, when the Legislature held its first public hearing on a bill that according to the governor is aimed at overcoming a 137-million-dollar deficit but would effectively end collective bargaining rights for state and local employees in Wisconsin, there has been a 24-hour presence of protestors in the state Capitol.
Handmade posters cover the walls of the Capitol, drum circles and horns can be heard from afar and hundreds of protestors are engaged in a non-stop chanting of slogans like “Kill the Bill”, “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” “Forwards. Not Backwards,” “The People. United. Will Never Be Defeated”. Through the night, many of them stay to camp out on blow-up mattresses and makeshift beds.
“To me and a lot of others, the right to collectively bargain is a basic human right. It's right there with freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. To try to take it away in just one week with just one public hearing is simply outrageous,” said Bob Christofferson, a retired union member from Poynette, Wisconsin.
Many protestors criticised the speed with which Republicans sought to pass the bill.
“The budget can wait until Jun. 6. Why do things have to be pushed through in a week?” asked Nick Brooks, a history teacher from Racine, Wisconsin.
“Our founding fathers managed to compromise when drafting the Declaration of Independence. Why can't our government do the same with bargaining rights? This is disgraceful. We are not extremists. We are the nicest people in the country,” he added.
Meanwhile, protestors' hopes rest on the 14 Democratic senators who fled Wisconsin last week to prevent a final vote on the bill.
“We kind of assumed that the bill gets passed [in the Assembly] because of the wide margin between the majority and the minority in the Assembly. We are hoping that the state Senate will be able to broker a deal that will make more parties happy,” Bernie Cowardine, a firefighter from Green Bay, Wisconsin, told IPS.
The Assembly's vote sent the bill to the Senate where it will most likely remain for the time being. While Republicans control the Senate 19-14, a final passage on the bill demands that at least 20 members present. So far, Democratic senators have showed no inclination to return to Wisconsin.
“Democratic senators have been forced to try to find a way to give more time to the legislation rather than rushing through it. The rushing is the problem,” Mark Forman from Veterans for Peace told IPS. “Negotiating rights away from the people is not something that should be taken lightly. We have fought hard for these rights in the last century. We know how precious they are. This is going to cost a lot of harmony in the country and it is an amazing takeover by the rich few,” he added.
There is more to this bill than mere fiscal decision-making, protestors unanimously emphasise. Using fiscal responsibility as a pretext, the budget repair bill is an open attack on union and union organisation, they say.
“This is not about the money. We are not high-paid workers and have never been. It wasn't the unions' idea to get us benefits; it was the state in order to pay us less. We gave up a lot of pay raises to get these benefits,” Anna Capadona and Diane Wiegel, two retired clerical workers, told IPS.
“I am a public worker in the union. Republicans are acting like we are the devil when in fact the last negotiation resulted in a three percent pay cut. We are more than happy to negotiate. We've been giving back. Why bust the unions? Why are we the devil?” wondered Jeannette Schermann, a Wisconsin union member.
At the same time, Governor Walker's proposed budget repair bill would have severe consequences for Wisconsin public schools and the university here. Hundreds of teachers could be faced with preliminary layoffs as soon as Monday. Mobilisation among students has been immense since the beginning of the protests.
“We are here to support our teachers. Because if our teachers get laid off, we don't get as good of an education. This bill affects us as much as it affects them,” 14-year- old high school students Claudia Alvatenga and Emily Durrant told IPS.
“This is not only about unions. This is a matter of total imbalance when it comes down to the structure of power. The budget repair bill is almost just an excuse for creating an imbalance that makes everybody's life miserable. Republicans clearly crossed a line here. Nobody appreciates being ignored for 11 days straight,” said Andy Fuchs, a 24-year- old from Sheboygan, Wisconsin who has camped out in the Capitol since the protests began almost two weeks ago.
“For me personally, staying in the Capitol is also about the experience. This is the biggest movement of my generation. I have never protested with firefighters and policemen on my side. This protest comes down to the core of what it means to be human and to defending our human rights against the greed of Walker and his supporters,” he added.
While police presence has clearly increased and security heightened in and around the Capitol in recent days, activists stress the peaceful nature of their protests. “This is a peaceful protest. I haven't seen a single confrontation. But that's what they want,” one protestor told IPS.
Local news reported Thursday that Gov. Walker discussed the possibility of placing agent provocateurs on the streets of Madison to disrupt peaceful demonstrations but ultimately decided against doing so.
“We are standing here in solidarity with other unions not just in Wisconsin but all across the country to protect collective bargaining rights,” one firefighter said. “Collective bargaining is misunderstood. It includes so many more vital areas, such as workers' and workplace safety as well as being able to protect your seniority rights. It is not only about wages,” he added.
“I could not be more proud of our people, both from the public and private sector. Police and firefighters were exempted from the cuts and they are still marching with us,” said Marlene Ott, a retired teacher from Milwaukee.
“This bill created ill-will between union members and non- members and that is something that Wisconsin has to deal with for years to come. But that has always been Walker's strategy – a strategy of divide and conquer,” she added.
The Struggle Spreads
Wisconsin is only one of several Republican run states that have attempted to curb union rights. The struggle over labour rights has become a hot topic in several states across the country where new Republican majorities have proposed drastic budget cuts to tackle state deficits.
In Indiana, like in Wisconsin, Democrats have fled their state to prevent these measures from being passed. By doing so, Indiana Democrats were able to kill a controversial union crackdown bill.
In Ohio, protestors have equally come to the statehouse in Columbus to protest a bill that would strip workers from their right to collectively bargain for benefits and wages. Senators there have meanwhile offered to amend the proposed legislation to grant unionized state employees to collectively bargain for their wages.
Contrary to these signs of compromise in other states, Wisconsin Gov. Walker so far has shown no willingness to get into dialogue with his Democratic colleagues. At the same time, protestors show themselves determined to continue their fight for workers' rights.
“It is a false premise that this is about money,” said Marlene Ott, a retired teacher from Milwaukee. “We have already compromised, just leave us our organisation. In Michigan, Florida, and other states, legislators have eventually agreed to work with the people but Walker has always been a bit stubborn. I hope all this national media attention will backfire on him. Whatever happens, I think the unions have never been stronger in my lifetime than now and that's thanks to Gov. Scott Walker.”