In one of the largest protests in recent memory, thousands of angry union supporters gathered at the state Capitol on Tuesday to oppose a bill by Gov. Scott Walker that would greatly weaken organized labor in Wisconsin.
More than 12,000 protesters gathered in two separate rallies outside the Capitol, many of them carrying signs and chanting "Recall Walker" or "Kill this bill." Thousands more crowded inside the rotunda and watched TV monitors broadcasting a public hearing on the governor's proposal.
Capitol Police officers, Department of Natural Resources wardens, UW police and state troopers provided beefed-up security, but the crowd remained peaceful — if loud.
Cheers erupted every time someone in the hearing voiced opposition to the governor's bill, aimed at erasing a $137 million deficit in the current budget. Unveiled Friday, Walker's plan would remove collective bargaining rights for most of the 175,000 state and local government employees, allowing most workers to negotiate only over salary.
Walker, however, exempted most law enforcement, firefighters and Wisconsin State Patrol troopers from the change. On Tuesday, members of the firefighters union received a loud ovation from the crowd outside the Capitol as they marched through the rally, holding signs displaying solidarity with their fellow state and local employees.
"What's good for one of us is good for all of us," said Russell Griswold, a retired electrician from West Allis. Griswold worked as a union electrician for 46 years and has a nice retirement thanks to unions, he said. He came out Tuesday because he is afraid those who follow him will not enjoy the same benefits.
The governor said the changes are needed to overcome not only this year's deficit but a far deeper hole in his first two-year budget, which he plans to introduce Tuesday. If his proposal fails, Walker has said he would likely have to lay off about 1,500 state workers by June 30 to make up for the current budget's shortfall. He also said the budget emergency doesn't allow time to negotiate new contracts with unions.
"That would be more believable if he had ever bothered to meet with the unions to begin with," said David Ahrens, a researcher at UW-Madison's Carbone Cancer Center.
Walker's plan — which requires most state and local employees pay half the cost of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums — is projected to save the state $30 million by June 30. That savings jumps to $300 million over the next two years.
But the biggest savings Walker is proposing for the current budget have nothing to do with public employees. His bill proposes to save $165 million this year by simply refinancing state debt.
Governor out of town
Walker missed the crowds Tuesday. According to his staff, Walker left town for a business tour of Green Bay, La Crosse, Eau Claire and Wausau before giving an interview on Fox News' "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren."
But it is unlikely the six hours of chants and three entire floors of protesters would have changed his mind. Most states' governors are facing tough budget problems, and many are taking hard lines to fix them.
Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has threatened 9,800 state layoffs if union negotiations stall. Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has pushed through pay freezes, furloughs and pension cuts for public workers.
Both faced a loud and angry public when they introduced their proposals but are doing well in recent polls.
Charles Franklin, UW-Madison political science professor, said Tuesday that the opposition that has erupted over Walker's proposals are more severe than he has seen in 19 years of following politics in Wisconsin.
"These are very large stakes," he said. "But I'm sure the governor knew that going in. The question is, will the lawmakers stick by him?"