Thousands of protesters surround Wis. Capitol
MADISON, Wis. - Thousands of protesters swelled the streets around the state's seat of government for a fifth day as pro-labor activists continue their fight against a measure that would gut the state's public employee unions.
Added to the mix today, however, was a rally of conservative supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his plan to balance the state's budget by ending state employees' right to negotiate contracts through collective bargaining.
In Madison, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney predicted crowds could swell to as many as 70,000 people Saturday and said his department planned to add 60 deputies to the 100 who patrolled during the week.
Supporters of Walker gathered on the east side of the Capitol, surrounded by a much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators, who since Tuesday have filled the Capitol with chanting, drumbeats and anti-Walker slogans.
Walker has proposed requiring government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs. His proposal also largely eliminates their collective bargaining rights.
In an effort to postpone a vote on the bill, 14 Democratic senators fled the state.
CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports that pro-union protesters see this state as ground zero in their battle to save public sector unions.
Across the country, from Nevada to Florida, Republican governors are blaming unions (and their benefit packages) in part for their states' budget shortfalls, and are trying to reduce their power.
To support Walker after several days of pro-labor demonstrations, a rally was organized for Saturday by Tea Party Patriots and the business-allied front group Americans for Prosperity.
"We did have an election and Scott Walker won," said Deborah Arndt, 53, of Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. "I think our governor will stand strong. I have faith in him."
Arndt and the other conservative backers of Walker had their faith rewarded shortly before the start of their noon rally, when Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald reaffirmed that Republicans -- who took control of both the state Senate and Assembly in November -- have the votes needed to pass the measure.
"The bill is not negotiable," Fitzgerald said inside a heavily guarded Senate parlor at the Capitol. "The bill will pass as-is."
By early afternoon, the New York Times reports, supporters of the bill were far outnumbered.
"I'm going to support the governor who's trying to do the right thing for the state of Wisconsin," Bob Clark, a real estate agent from Brookfield told the Isthmus. "He pays his own health insurance, funds his own pension, and does not get paid sick vacation or sick days. So naturally it rubs him the wrong way that state workers would object to having to pay more toward their health care and pensions."
Fitzgerald said the Senate is ready to act on the so-called "budget repair" bill just as soon as 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state on Thursday and remain in hiding return to the Statehouse. The missing Democrats have threatened to stay away for weeks unless Walker agrees to negotiate.
Speaking from Chicago on "The Early Show on Saturday Morning," Democratic State Senator Jon Erpenbach said Walker's proposal "has torn the state of Wisconsin apart."
"That's not the right way to go," Erpenbach said. "The state employees have talked about the money and giving up the money, and that's fine. But what they have a problem with - and what a lot of us have a problem with - is the fact that Governor Walker is taking decades of union law and throwing it out the window and trying to bust the unions altogether, and that's just not the right way to go."
Defeating the Wisconsin bill and others like it is crucial for public-sector unions, an important part of the Democratic Party base. President Barack Obama and other Democrats will need the campaign donations and strong support of unions in the 2012 elections -- especially in key swing states like Wisconsin -- to counter a huge influx of corporate funds allowed under a Supreme Court decision last year.
"I think it's a clear message," said the AFL-CIO labor federation's political director Karen Ackerman. "If you take on middle-class people and try to solve the budget crises on their backs, there's a price to pay. Many thousands of people will be energized to fight back."
Nearly every major union leader -- both public and private sector -- has united behind an ambitious $30 million plan to stop anti-labor measures in Wisconsin and at least 10 other states. A proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights drew throngs of protesters this week at the Ohio Capitol in Columbus. Hundreds more have demonstrated in Tennessee and Indiana.
President Barack Obama and his political machine, Organizing for America, are offering tactical support to the Wisconsin protesters, eager to repair strained relations with some union leaders upset over his recent overtures to business.
Pro-labor activists worried about a confrontation with tea party members trained overnight Saturday at the Capitol in non-violent protest techniques, said Madison resident and protester Chris Terrell.
Democratic Sen. Tim Cullen refused to say where he was Saturday but said he didn't expect the Senate to meet again until Tuesday. Cullen said he was watching Saturday's rallies on television with some friends.
"I'm hoping to see no violence, that's what I'm hoping most to see," Cullen said. "This has been a very peaceful, respectful thing all week given the size of the crowds."
The governor was spending time with his family Saturday and wasn't expected to make an appearance at the tea party-organized rally. His spokesman said the governor's office has been receiving 1,000 e-mails an hour, most of them in support of his position.
Democrats offered again Saturday to agree to the parts of Walker's proposal that would double workers' health insurance contributions and require them to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pensions, so long as workers retained their rights to negotiate with the state through their unions. The bill calls for the elimination of collective bargaining except over wage increases not greater than the Consumer Price Index.
Fitzgerald said he was unimpressed given that the offer was something the Republicans have rejected for months. The restrictions on collective bargaining rights are needed so that local governments and the state will have the flexibility needed to balance budgets after cuts Walker plans to announce next month, he said.
Walker insists the concessions he is seeking from public workers are needed to deal with the state's projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs.
Madison is no stranger to political unrest, having seen activists take to the streets to protest the Vietnam war, support civil rights and oppose cuts in social services.
The throngs of protesters -- including teachers, prison guards and many students -- have been largely peaceful. Police reported just nine citations for minor offenses as of Friday. Schools throughout the state closed this week after teachers called in sick, including in the state's largest district, in Milwaukee.
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