Since Monday, February 14th, protesters have demonstrated at the Wisconsin capital building against a state bill to remove the collective bargaining rights for most public-sector workers. Protesters have rallied around the clock, with hundreds camping inside the capital building for over ten days. Despite an order from Governor Scott Walker for protesters to leave the capital building no later than 4 p.m. yesterday, police have refused to forcibly remove protesters and the demonstration entered its fifteenth day on Monday.
The size of the demonstration has doubled in the past week. Last Saturday, February 26th, over 100,000 protesters rallied against the bill in Madison, which was the largest state rally since the Vietnam War. The size of this protest doubled the protest on the previous Saturday, February 19th, when over 50,000 protesters surrounded the capital building. The video below contains footage of the demonstration in Madison.
Current Wisconsin law regarding collective bargaining requires the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) to assign state employees to an appropriate bargaining unit. The text of the protested bill [.pdf] specifically prohibits WERC from assigning faculty and academic staff of the University of Wisconsin System to a bargaining unit. As a result, the bill would remove the possibility for faculty and academic staff of the UW System to be a part of a bargaining unit, except for inflation adjustments to wages.
While the bill has passed the Wisconsin State Assembly, which is equivalent to the House of Representatives on a national scale, the bill will not become law until the Wisconsin State Senate approves the bill, as well as Governor Walker. Even though Walker has voiced decisive support for the bill and would sign it, the question is whether the bill will pass the Wisconsin State Senate.
In Wisconsin, there are 19 Republican state senators and 14 Democratic state senators. While Republicans have a majority and enough votes to pass the bill, Democratic state senators have refused to attend the legislative session since Thursday, February 17th. This is a parliamentary procedure that is similar to a filibuster on a national scale and blocks a vote on legislation.
Frustrated with the delay, Wisconsin Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald ordered Wisconsin State Troopers to find the missing lawmakers, but troopers are not allowed to arrest lawmakers and haven’t found them. Today, Governor Walker issued a “24 hour notice” for Democrats to return. Walker’s demand may not be taken seriously, however, due to details revealed in an interview between himself and “David Koch,” who is a wealthy conservative contributor.
Last Thursday, an independent journalist from BuffaloBeast.com called the Governor’s office posing as David Koch and was able to record a lengthy conversation with the Governor about the demonstration. The clip below contains the first half of the conversation. Click here for the second half.
During the conversation, Walker explained to “Koch” that the Democratic senators do not have to be there for the vote on the bill, they only need to be there to start the session. Once the session began, the Democratic senators could not block a vote. Walker discussed how he planned to agree to meet with Democrats as long as they promised to return to the legislative session. While this tactic may have worked, the public disclosure of these details will likely prevent Democratic state senators from taking such a deal. Democratic state senators have said they will not return until the collective bargaining restrictions are removed from the bill.
Meanwhile, President Obama appeared today for his first comments regarding the demonstration. Obama noted how state and federal governments face tough economic decisions, but that “denigrating workers’ rights does not do anyone any good.” With the President’s support, the mass demonstration will likely continue. As of Monday, however, police were not forcibly removing protesters from the capital building, as mentioned above, but the police were preventing any new protesters from entering the building “until the situation is resolved.”