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Protesters pack downtown Madison Wisconsin, rallying for and against Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers. Sat. Feb. 19 2011. STEVE APPS - State Journal

State Journal reporters and photographers were out in force to capture the spirit of the sixth day of protests Downtown relating to the governor's controversial budget repair bill. Look here for updates all day and a full report in tomorrow's newspaper.

4:31 p.m.: State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, says from his Chicago hotel room this afternoon that he and 13 other Democratic senators are willing to remain missing as long as Gov. Scott Walker refuses to budge on his proposal to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees.

Erpenbach said all public unions have agreed to Walker's demand that their members contribute more for their pensions and health plans. In exchange, they are asking that Walker drop the provision that would eliminate collective bargaining.

"How long we stay out is totally up to the Governor," said Erpenbach. "There is a very serious offer on the table. If he says no to that, it means that his intent from the very beginning was to bust the public unions in Wisconsin."

Walker said the 14 senators, who by their absence are forestalling a vote on Walker's bill, met in caucus in exile Saturday morning, though he wouldn't say exactly where the meeting took place.

"It was good," Erpenbach said. "We talked about what we're hearing from our districts. We are very, very strong in our resolve, probably stronger than at anytime since Tuesday."

Erpenbach said the situation is difficult for all of the senators. He said he has a part-time job and will have to call in Monday morning to see if he can take off work for the foreseeable future.

Also, Erpenbach said, he worries about his family in Middleton. He said his daughter received a threatening telephone call and he asked the Middleton police to check his home every couple of hours.

When he ran for office, Erpenbach said, he never dreamed he would one day be in such a situation.

"This is pretty strange," Erpenbach said. "No doubt about it."

4:26 p.m.: Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz strolled around the Capitol today and blogged this:

"The protests that started with collective bargaining have spilled over into related issues of social justice and democratic process.

It's a spirited debate in the Madison spirit. Passionate and strong but with a sense of levity too. My favorite protest sign so far: "I Blame Brett Favre."

This is a national family conversation we've been putting off, but it has to happen, and it's starting to happen right here in Madison. The conversation has been fierce, articulate, loud, and civil.

We have to work out our differences and stay together as a nation. There has to be compromise in the air somewhere. But first we all have to be heard. And the hearing seems to be starting right here at home. This is what democracy looks like. "

4:05 p.m.: Wisconsin Eye has provided the State Journal with an amazing video clip of state Assembly minority leader Peter Barca exploding with anger on the floor of the Assembly after Republicans convened the Friday session early and began voting on Walker's bill before the Democrats had arrived. You can watch the video here. Read the State Journal story about the incident here.

3:25 p.m.: During what has been mostly a peaceful day of protest, at least one Walker supporter complains of a painful encounter.

Larry Oppelt, a trucker from Delavan, says he was kneed in the groin by an angry pro-union marcher.

Oppelt was on the Square with his wife and teenage son. He says another Walker supporter tried to knock his hat off.

Though Oppelt says he supported public unions when they first started, he said he now feels they have grown too powerful. He says that as a truck driver in the private sector he has to pay for his own retirement and his own health benefits. It's a struggle, he adds. That's why, he says, he came to the Square on Saturday.

2:35 p.m.: A break right now from rallies on the Capitol Square, though protesters on both sides continue to march to the beat of drums and the high refrain of whistles.

The Tea Party rally ended earlier this afternoon. One of the highlights: Sarah Palin sent her regrets for not being able to attend. And she conveyed this message to her faithful: "Please don't be taken in by union bosses."

Another union rally is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m.

In the meantime, Madison police say the situation remains remarkably peaceful with just a few verbal "brush fires" here and there.

2:11 p.m.: The crowd of protesters on the Capitol Square this afternoon has grown to as many as 60,000, according Joel DeSpain, a spokesman for the Madison Police Department.

DeSpain, who is watching the crowd from the top of a building on the Square, said that, for the size of the crowd, the scene has remained remarkably peaceful. He said there have been no arrests and no injuries.

"There have been some heated exchanges, people yelling at each other," DeSpain said. "But we've had absolutely no violence.

"We with the police department just want to thank everyone for their decorum and civility. With the eyes of the country and the world on us, we have shown people that Democracy works here in Wisconsin."

The crowd continues to swell at mid-afternoon. The chants of the protesters were joined by the honking of Union Cabs as dozens of taxi drivers drove their cars around the outside of the square. Many had passengers hanging out the windows holdiing pro-union signs.

1:54 p.m.: Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Wayne Kramer, Street Dogs and other musicians just announced they'll join pro-union protesters at the Capitol on Monday.

The guitarist for 90s hard rock band will call for "policies that support the middle class and leaders who will respect the freedom of working people to collectively call for a better life."

1:22 p.m.: One lively confrontation: A pro-Walker protester rushes a group of anti-Walker sign-wavers at the Col. Hegg statue at the top of King St. and begins ripping down signs.

Larry Orr, 67, with Veterans for Peace, who has been holding down the spot near the statue since Thursday, calls immediately for observers, who show up right away.

Deputies with the Dane County Sheriff Department intervene and cool things down. No arrests.

Mostly, says Madison Police Lt. Dave McCaw, everything remains mostly calm. No arrests. No injuries.

1:17 p.m.: Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, speaking from Illinois, said none of the 14 runaway senators will agree to Walker's bill.

"I don't see any wavering amongst the 14 senators," he said. "I don't see any democratic senator ready to be the 20th senator to vote on this."

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, who is holed up in Chicago, said Walker could end the crisis immediately if he accepted the financial concessions the public employee unions already have agreed to in exchange for keeping hands off their bargaining rights.

"Our perspective is the governor should take the offer and bring us together as a state instead of tearing us apart," Erpenbach said.

Risser added that in 55 years in the Senate, he's never seen the type of turmoil and conflict that surrounds Walker's budget-repair bill.

"I can remember tough times during the Vietnam days when the Capitol was surrounded by police officers ... (and) when Father Grappi took over the Assembly chambers. There's been nothing like this."

The two senators said they believe the budget shortfall is just a pretext for Walker's larger goal of gutting unions. Erpenbach countered Fitzgerald's statement that public sector managers will need to be free of collective bargaining constraints to make their budgets work.

"I can't imagine either side wanting to bankrupt anything over a contract," Erpenbach said.

He added, "It's been very evident now for a few days that this is not about money. Local and public unions are going to be giving the governor the money he wants. ... It has everything to do with bargaining rights ... and killing every single union he (Walker) can get his hands on."

12:50 p.m.: Gov. Scott Walker Saturday tells the missing senators to come back to the Capitol.

"Senator Erpenbach, Senator Miller, and his fellow Democrats should come back to Wisconsin to do their jobs," the governor says."These are many of the same Senators who, two years ago, rammed through a billion dollar tax hike in 24 hours with no public input.

"The quickest way to resolve the current situation is for the Democratic Senators to stop shirking their responsibilities and debate the bill in Madison. We continue to call on them to come to Madison and do their jobs."

But State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, speaking from exile, says none of the 14 senators plans to relent.

"I don't see any wavering amongst the senators," Risser says.

Meanwhile, Joe the Plumber takes the stage at the pro-Walker rally on the Capitol Square.

12:30 p.m.: It's a war of words on the Capitol Square today as protesters for and against Gov. Scott Walker's budget bill stand toe-to-toe and trade verbal jabs.

Pro-Walker forces chanted "Trim the fat!" and anti-Walker crowds shot back "Don't drink the tea!"

Early estimates of the pro-Walker crowd were around 2,000. Those groups seem to be staking out the sidewalk and the Capitol lawn as their ground while the pro-union protesters circle the Square in the street. The Capitol lawn is being churned into mud.

The confrontations seemed limited mostly to heated debate and lots of sign waving in the early afternoon.

"I think they see a strong police presence," said Madison Police Sgt. June Groehler.

12:15 p.m.: Earlier this morning, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, sent the following message through an aide from his hideout in Chicago:

"I have been informed that all state and local public employees - including teachers - have agreed to the financial aspects of Governor Walker's request. This includes Walker's requested concessions on public employee health care and pension. In return they ask only that the provisions that deny their right to collectively bargain are removed. This will solve the budget challenge."

"This is a real opportunity for us to come together and resolve the issue and move on. It is incumbent upon Governor Walker to seriously consider and hopefully accept this offer as soon as possible."

Also Saturday morning, Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker, said the Governor's office is receiving about 1,000 e-mails an hour, the majoriy of which support the budget bill and the elimination of collective bargaining.

12:04 p.m.: Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Saturday morning that the 19 Senate Republicans would not compromise on Gov. Scott Walker's controversial plan to strip most bargaining rights from state and local public employee unions

"We're rock solid," he said, as tens of thousands of protesters continued their sixth day of demonstrations inside and outside of the state Capitol.

Fitzgerald said he has talked with Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, who along with the other 13 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois Thursday to avoid voting on Walker's budget-repair bill. However, the two only talked about security matters related to the ongoing protests in Madison.

The Senate majority leader brushed off a call from Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, to 'solve the budget crisis by accepting the unions' offer to accept Walker's terms to pay more toward their health and retirement benefits, which would amount to an average 8 percent cut in compensation.

"In return they ask only that the provisions that deny their right to collectively bargain are removed," Erpenbach said in a statement issued through an aide.

He said Walker's budget for the next two years likely will include deep cuts to state aid to schools and local governments, which will need the flexibility to balance their budgets without collective bargaining with 175,000 unionized public sector employees. The Republican governor is expected to unveil details of his that biennial budget March 1.

State and local officials must be able to limit employee costs, which will be easier if the Legislature severely curtails the ability of public sector unions to bargain, he said. Police, fire fighters and the State Patrol are exempt from the collective-bargaining restrictions, under Walker's bill.

"The local units of government will be forced to manage their budgets," Fitzgerald said. "Unless you have that flexibility, you're not going to get that done -- whether you're a county board chair or a school board president."

Fitzgerald also expressed concern for the safety of Senate staffers as the loud protests continue. He said senators have received threatening e-mails and phone calls, and some of their homes have been picketed.

11:47 a.m.: As the morning wears on, increasing numbers of pro-Walker protesters are marching toward the Capitol Square, including a large group headed up State Street toward the Square and the anti-Walker rally.

Madison Police Sgt. June Groehler says everything remains mostly peaceful with some disagreements escalating to pushing and shoving. Several reports of shouting matches are coming across the police radio.

11:07 a.m.: Security around the State Capitol was heavier Saturday morning with groups of police officers walking through the crowd.

In addition to the Madison and Capitol police, officers from law enforcement agencies in nearby counties were also on hand, including sheriff deputies from Rock, Vernon, Columbia, Grant and Sauk Counties.

A line of stern-looking troopers from the State Patrol stood guard outside Gov. Scott Walker's office inside the State Capitol.

10:30 a.m.: Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to descend on the state Capitol today to push their views of the controversial budget repair bill that would end nearly all collective bargaining rights for public employees.

The reaction to Gov. Scott Walker's bill, proposed eight days ago, has been intense - sending local and state employees into the streets in protest. Today marks the sixth day of protests in Downtown Madison, and officials expect it to be the largest showing yet.

Friday's protests drew an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 people.

The protests get under way today with a new wrinkle - opposing sides. The unions are expecting to start their protests 10:30 a.m. at the Capitol. A pro-Walker crowd is expected to gather starting at noon.

Check back here throughout the day for updates.

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With national attention falling on Madison in the last week, Twitter has exploded with people talking about the Gov. Scott Walker's bill to remove many collective bargaining rights from most state employees. Thousands of people used Twitter to spread information (and rumors) and organize protests.

Late last week, Twitter reported the hashtag "#wiunion" had become one of the most talked-about subjects on the microblogging service nationally. In Twitter, a hashtag is a keyword or term people use to help categorize their tweets by subject.

The chart below shows the rate that tweets with #wiunion in them have been sent this week.

And here are tweets being sent right now about the union budget battle on Twitter.