MADISON, Wis. — Thousands of teachers, students and prison guards descended on the Capitol on Wednesday to fight a move to strip government workers of union rights in the first state to grant them more than a half-century ago, but Republican leaders said the changes protesters sought would not be made.
The statehouse filled with as many as 10,000 demonstrators who chanted, sang the national anthem and beat drums for hours in demonstrations unlike any seen in Madison in decades. The noise in the rotunda rose to the level of a chainsaw, and many Madison teachers joined the protest by calling in sick in such numbers that the district — the state's second-largest — had to cancel classes.
The new Republican governor, Scott Walker, is seeking passage of the nation's most aggressive anti-union proposal, which was moving swiftly through the GOP-led Legislature. Legislative leaders said Wednesday night they would make minor changes to the bill but would keep the provision to remove collective bargaining rights that generated the protests.
"It is momentous and I think people around the state are going to welcome it," said Sen. Alberta Darling, the co-chair of the budget committee that planned to pass the bill Wednesday night. Leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate and Assembly said it would pass there starting today.
If adopted, the move would mark a dramatic shift for Wisconsin, which passed a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959 and was the birthplace of the national union representing all non-federal public employees.
As protesters chanted "Recall Walker now!" outside the governor's office, Walker insisted he has the votes to pass the measure, which he says is needed to help balance a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and avoid widespread layoffs.
In an interview with Milwaukee television station WTMJ, President Barack Obama said he was monitoring the situation in Madison and acknowledged the need for budget cuts. But pushing public employees away from the bargaining table "seems like more of an assault on unions," he said.
In addition to eliminating collective bargaining rights, the legislation also would make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage — increases Walker calls "modest" compared with those in the private sector.