Tens of thousands of people are descending on the state Capitol Saturday for the sixth day of protests targeting a controversial budget repair bill that effectively strips public workers of their collective bargaining rights.
Some 40,000 protesters — including the Rev. Jesse Jackson — showed up Friday to help cheer on Democratic lawmakers who successfully delayed action on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's bill by leaving the state and depriving the Senate of a quorum.
Officials expect Saturday's crowd to be even bigger and bring a new dynamic: opposing sides. Union protesters have largely had the Capitol to themselves for the week. But a counter-protest has been organized for Saturday involving pro-Walker and Tea Party supporters.
The union protests got under way at 10:30, and the pro-Walker group starts at noon.
Reaction to the bill, proposed eight days ago, has been intense and has built throughout the week, with bigger protests each day.
On Friday, Walker announced he was pushing back the release of the state's two-year budget, and his budget address, by a week. It was supposed to be delivered Tuesday. The short-term budget repair bill, aimed at getting through this fiscal year, also includes cuts in public employee benefits.
"You are winning the Super Bowl of workers' rights!" Jackson told the crowd gathered on the Capitol steps Friday.
The Legislature may be at a stalemate for now — Democratic senators haven't returned from Illinois since fleeing Wisconsin on Thursday, and the Assembly adjourned after a brief but heated session Friday. — but major union officials came forward Friday to offer concessions.
Union leaders offer concessions
Top leaders of two of Wisconsin's largest public employee unions announced they are willing to accept the financial concessions called for in Walker's plan, but will not accept the loss of collective bargaining rights.
Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, and Marty Beil, executive director of AFSCME Council 24, said in a conference call with reporters that workers will do their fair share to narrow Wisconsin's budget gap.
Walker's plan calls for nearly all state, local and school employees to pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. That would save $30 million by June 30 and $300 million over the next two years, the governor has said.
The measure also would prohibit most unionized public employees, except local police and fire fighters and the State Patrol, from bargaining on issues besides wages. Wage hikes could be negotiated only if they don't exceed the consumer price index.
"We want to say loud and clear — it is not about those concessions," Bell said. "For my members, it's about retaining a voice in their professions."
The two insisted their positions have not changed and Friday's call was intended to clarify their opposition to Walker's proposal. Bell, who represents 98,000 educators, and Beil, whose council includes 60,000 members, repeated calls for Walker to sit down with them.
Senate Democrats also reached out to Walker, sending him a letter urging him to remove the bargaining provisions from his bill.
But Walker repeated that he would not back down.
Friday the Capitol was again flooded by thousands of protesters and the sounds of bagpipes, banging drums, singing and chanting. The crowd totalled about 35,000 surrounding the Capitol and 5,000 inside the building, according to Madison and Capitol police. The protests are expected to continue and possibly grow on Saturday, with a pro-Walker rally organized by Americans for Prosperity planned for noon.
Appearance by Jesse Jackson
National labor figures descended on the Capitol on Friday, where they were joined by Jackson, who arrived around noon. Speaking to a near-capacity crowd from the second level of the Capitol rotunda, the civil rights activist led protesters in chants of "Save the teachers. Save the children." Protesters swayed as Jackson led them in a rendition of the song, "We Shall Overcome."
"If we can find the money to bail out wealthy businessmen, we can bail out Madison, Wisconsin!" Jackson yelled, to thunderous applause from the crowd, many of them clad in Badger red.
The 14 Senate Democrats who fled Wisconsin on Thursday to avoid voting on Walker's controversial plan continued their boycott. The lawmakers, at least some of whom are holed up in Illinois, still say they won't return until Walker gets rid of the provisions stripping workers of their bargaining rights. Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, said he was in northern Illinois and didn't know when he'd be back.
Some protesters were calling the senators the "Fab 14" while others declared their intent to recall Sens. Bob Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie, and Jim Holperin, D-Conover, for failure to carry out their official duties.
Assembly convenes without Democrats
Meanwhile, Assembly Republicans convened their floor session a few minutes before its scheduled start Friday evening and moved Walker's bill toward final passage before Democrats could enter the chamber, prompting howls of outrage from Assembly Democrats.
The action, taken on a voice vote, prevented the Democrats from introducing any amendments to the bill. Democrats began yelling as they entered the chamber to find the majority Republicans voting on the bill.
"This is unbelievable. Unprecedented. Un-American," yelled Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. "This is just the most outrageous thing I have ever seen."
Barca called the actions "illegal" and a violation of Assembly rules.
"There is a stink in this body. There's a stain on the history of this state with what you've done."
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said he started early because, "Honestly, I thought you guys weren't showing up."
Fitzgerald acknowledged that Barca was correct in his reading of the rules, and members allowed the bill to return to its amendable stage. Fitzgerald then moved to adjourn the Assembly until 10 a.m. on Tuesday, prompting a standing ovation from Democrats, who promised to continue working on amendments to the bill.
Republicans say they're standing firm
Jeff Fitzgerald's brother, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, also was in the spotlight Friday. Scott Fitzgerald said the massive protests were solidifying support of the 19 Republican senators for Walker's budget repair bill.
"If anything, what's going on around this building is galvanizing the (Republican) caucus," the Senate leader said. "There's nobody in this caucus that's softening."
Asked whether any Democratic senators appeared ready to compromise with Walker and the Republicans, Fitzgerald said he's been unable to reach anyone except Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona. That conversation Thursday lasted 20 seconds, he said. The 19 Republicans need a 20th senator to act on the budget bill.
Earlier Friday, state troopers were dispatched to Miller's home after Fitzgerald said he had been led to believe the Democratic leader was there. But no one answered the door.
"I am starting to hold Senator Miller responsible for this. He is the leader, elected by his members," Fitzgerald said.
The GOP holds a 19-14 edge in the Senate and a 57-38-1 edge in the Assembly, and Republican leaders say they have the votes to pass the measure.
The governor's proposal, unveiled Feb. 11 as part of a bill aimed at overcoming a $137 million deficit in the current budget, was expected to pass Thursday but stalled when the Senate Democrats walked out.