Protesters gather in Wisconsin / photo: Julia Meuse
The vote on an anti-union bill in Wisconsin has been put on hold indefinitely as two Republicans and all of Wisconsin’s Senate Democrats failed to appear at the State Capitol in Madison. Democrats hold 14 of Wisconsin’s 33 Senate seats; for a vote to go forward for a vote, 20 members are required to be present, including at least one member from each party. By not reporting to the Capitol, Democrats reportedly hope to force Republicans to debate and negotiate elements of the bill.
The “Budget Repair Bill,” proposed by Governor Scott Walker on February 11, seeks to virtually eliminate the collective bargaining rights of 175,000 public-sector workers, including prison guards, childcare and healthcare workers at state-run facilities, and 106,000 teachers. Exemptions were made for police, highway patrol, and firefighter unions; the Chicago Tribune reports that the unions which were made exempt had, in 2010, endorsed Walker’s candidacy. Under the proposed legislation, public employees would be barred from union representation when negotiating benefits, hours and working conditions. They would, however, still be able to negotiate wages on an annual basis. Public workers’ contributions into their own pension and health insurance plans would nearly double and, according to the Governor’s February 11 press release, workers could be fired by state authorities if they “participate in an organized action to stop or slow work.”
Labor unions, state employees, teachers, and students have gathered in Madison since Tuesday in the tens of thousands to voice their opposition to Walker’s Budget Repair Bill. They are joined by members of police and firefighter unions who stand in solidarity with those who will be directly impacted by this legislation. Teachers’ and public workers’ unions WAEC and AFSCME advised their members to take part in a “sickout,” taking the day off from teaching in order to participate in the protests. Madison schools were closed on Thursday after roughly 1,000 teachers (over 40% of the district’s teachers) called in sick. Madison Superintendent Dan Nerad said that teachers who took the day off for medical reasons will be asked to provide proof of a medical issue.
An estimated 25,000 people currently occupy the rotunda of the State Capitol. Workers protesting in Wisconsin this week have sparked protests in Ohio as well, where an estimated 3,800 public workers have gathered at the State Capitol in Columbus to voice opposition to a similar bill by Ohio Governor John Kasich. Bloomberg reports that in a telephone conversation between the two governors concerning the demonstrations, Walker advised Kasich, “Don’t blink.” Walker made headlines last week when he announced that the Wisconsin National Guard was prepared to respond to strikes, later clarified to mean that Guardsmen may be used to staff state prisons in the event of a strike.