What’s Happening in Wisconsin Explained

Protesters flood the streets of Madison surrounding the state Capitol building on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011.John Murray, johnmurrayphoto.com.

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If you need to know the basics of what’s going on in Wisconsin, read on. If you’re already up to speed, you can follow the action on Twitter or jump straight to the latest updates.

The basics:

For more than a month, demonstrators have been pouring into the streets of Madison, Wisconsin—and the halls of the state’s Capitol building—to protest rookie Republican Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union “budget repair bill,” which the governor signed on March 11. Big national unions, both major political parties, the Tea Party, and Andrew Breitbart have gotten involved. Democratic state senators fled the state in mid-February to prevent the legislature from voting on Walker’s proposals, but returned in early March after Wisconsin Republicans rammed the bill through using a parliamentary end-run. And the protests have spread to other states, including Michigan and Ohio.

Is this like Egypt?

Not quite. Though there are some similarities.

What’s actually being proposed?

Walker says his legislation, which would strip most state employees of any meaningful collective bargaining rights, is necessary to close the state’s $137 million budget gap. There are a number of problems with that argument, though. The unions are not to blame for the deficit, and stripping unionized workers of their collective bargaining rights won’t in and of itself save any money. Walker says he needs to strip the unions of their rights to close the gap. But public safety officers’ unions, which have members who are more likely to support Republicans and who also tend to have the highest salaries and benefits, are exempted from the new rules. Meanwhile, a series of tax breaks and other goodies that Walker and the Republican legislature passed just after his inauguration dramatically increased the deficit that Walker now says he’s trying to close. And Wisconsin has closed a much larger budget gap in the past without scrapping worker organizing rights.

What’s really going on, as Kevin Drum has explained, is pure partisan warfare: Walker is trying to de-fund the unions that form the backbone of the Democratic party. The unions and the Democrats are, of course, fighting back. The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein drops some knowledge [emphasis added]:

wisconsin protests

The best way to understand Walker’s proposal is as a multi-part attack on the state’s labor unions. In part one, their ability to bargain benefits for their members is reduced. In part two, their ability to collect dues, and thus spend money organizing members or lobbying the legislature, is undercut. And in part three, workers have to vote the union back into existence every single year. Put it all together and it looks like this: Wisconsin’s unions can’t deliver value to their members, they’re deprived of the resources to change the rules so they can start delivering value to their members again, and because of that, their members eventually give in to employer pressure and shut the union down in one of the annual certification elections.

You may think Walker’s proposal is a good idea or a bad idea. But that’s what it does. And it’s telling that he’s exempting the unions that supported him and is trying to obscure his plan’s specifics behind misleading language about what unions can still bargain for and misleading rhetoric about the state’s budget.

Walker’s bill does have important fiscal elements: it roughly doubles health care premiums for many state employees. But the heart of the proposals, and the controversy, are the provisions that will effectively destroy public-sector unions in the Badger State. As Matt Yglesias notes, this won’t destroy the Democratic party. But it will force the party to seek funding from sources other than unions, and that usually means the same rich businessmen who are the main financial backers for the Republican Party. Speaking of which….

Who is Scott Walker? 

Walker was elected governor in the GOP landslide of 2010, when Republicans also gained control of the Wisconsin state senate and house of representatives. His political career has been bankrolled by Charles and David Koch, the very rich, very conservative, and very anti-union oil-and-gas magnates. Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation have long taken a very antagonistic view toward public-sector unions. They’ve used their vast fortunes to fight key Obama initiatives on health care and the environment, while writing fat checks to Republican candidates across the country. Walker’s take for the 2010 election: $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC, his second highest intake from any one donor. But that’s not all!:

The Koch’s PAC also helped Walker via a familiar and much-used political maneuver designed to allow donors to skirt campaign finance limits. The PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent $65,000 on independent expenditures to support Walker. The RGA also spent a whopping $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking Walker’s opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker ended up beating Barrett by 5 points. The Koch money, no doubt, helped greatly.

What are the Democrats and the unions doing to respond?

Well, they’re protesting, obviously—filling the halls of the Capitol and the streets of Madison with bodies and signs. They’re calling their representatives and talking about recalling Walker (who cannot be recalled until next January) or any of eight GOP state senators who are eligible for recall right now. Meanwhile, all of the

Democratic state senators left the state in an attempt to deny Republicans the quorum they need to vote on Walker’s proposals, but they were thwarted by Republicans in Wisconsin’s Senate. (Interestingly, the head of the state patrol in the father of the Republican heads of the state senate and house of representatives, who are brothers.) Finally, Wisconsin public school teachers have been calling in sick, forcing schools to close while teachers in over a dozen other school districts picket the capitol, plan vigils, and set up phone banks to try to block Walker’s effort.

How could this spread?

Other Republican-governed states are trying to mimic Walker’s assault on public employee unions. The GOP won a resounding series of state-level victories in high-union-density states in November. Now they can use their newly-won power to crack down on one of the Democrats’ biggest sources of funds, volunteers, and political power. Plans are already under consideration in places like Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

Speaking of Ohio:

As Suzy Khimm outlined on Friday, an estimated 3,800-5,000 protestors came out in full fury in Columbus, Ohio, to vent their anger over a similar anti-union bill that would limit workers’ rights to bargain for health insurance, end automatic pay increases, and infringe upon teachers’ rights to pick their classes and schools. As in Wisconsin, both the Ohio state house and governor’s mansion flipped from blue to red last year. “This has little to do with balancing this year’s budget,” former Governor Ted Strickland told the AP. “I think it’s a power grab. It’s an attempt to diminish the rights of working people. I think it’s an assault of the middle class of this state and it’s so unfair and out of balance.”

How are conservatives working to support Walker?:

It was only a matter of time till the Tea Party got in on the action. Stephanie Mencimer reports that activists are bussing into Madison, and are “promising a massive counter-demonstration.” The push is being led by American Majority, a conservative activist group that trains impressionable young foot soldiers to become state-level candidates (check out their “”I Stand With Scott Walker Rally” Facebook page). Founded by Republican operatives, the well-funded group (which, according to tax fillings, had a budget of nearly $2 million in 2009) gets much of its money from a group with ties to those adorable Koch brothers. Conservative media baron Andrew Breitbart will be leading the rally, and will be joined by presidential candidate Herman Cain and maybe—if we’re lucky—Joe “The Plumber” Wurtzelbacher. Expect fireworks.

UPDATE 2, Friday, Feb. 18, 11:20 p.m. CST: Two short flights and a few ginger ales later, I’m on the ground in snowy Madison. A few big developments on Friday worth mentioning. On Friday evening, the Wisconsin Assembly, the state’s lower house, delayed a crucial vote on the bill to kill collective bargaining rights for state public-sector employees. The move came after Democrats protested that they weren’t given the chance to offer amendments on the bill, a procedural move that successfully stalled a vote until Tuesday when the Assembly readjourns.

Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker is also seeking to delay the release of his budget plan for next year by a week. Walker was slated to unveil his new budget in conjunction with a speech on Tuesday, but now wants to push back the release until next Tuesday. He’s said he’ll still give a budget-related speech of some kind this week.

UPDATE 3, Saturday, Feb. 19, 8:25 a.m. CST: When the Madison protests erupted last week, public school teachers, who would lose their collective bargaining rights under Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill, walked out of their classrooms, shutting down local schools. Many of those teachers did so to join the protests at the state capital building. In response, the Madison School District filed a restraining order to compel teachers to return to work. But on Friday night, a county judge denied the order, the Wisconsin State Journal reported, saying the teachers’ walk-out was not technically a strike and delivering a win for teachers. Still, Madison teachers are expected to return to their classrooms on Tuesday.

UPDATE 4, Saturday, Feb. 19, 1:15 p.m. CST: The masses of protesters, and later pro-Walker counter-protesters, swelled to the tens of thousands today. Labor groups held a boisterous morning rally at 10:30 a.m., filled with chants of “Kill the bill” and “Hey hey, ho ho / Scott Walker has to go!” At noon, counter-protesters—a mix of tea party types, Walker supporters, and much more—filled one corner of the Wisconsin capital grounds. The midday rally was hosted by a right-wing group named American Majority, a right-wing created to train budding politicos that’s based out of Virginia with cozy ties to the Republican Party. Speakers at the counter-protest included Andrew Breitbart, the conservative media provocateur, Joe the Plumber, and Tim Phillips, the president of the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. AFP, it turns out, paid for some of the buses that transported people to American Majority event.

The influence of wealthy right-wing funders in the counter-protest and Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s governship isn’t lost on the protesters here. In the mid-morning, I met Kim Grveles, a conservation biologist from Milton, Wisc., for the state protesting Walker’s anti-union bill. It was Grveles’ sign neon-pink sign that caught my eye: “Corporate Money OUT of My Democracy NOW.” I asked Grveles why she chose that message for her sign. “Scott Walker isn’t smart enough to do this on his own,” she told me. “This is a coordinated effort going on all over the country.”

Grveles said she was frightened by the gaping chasm in wealth in the US, a small sliver of Americans raking it most of the nation’s wealth. Chiming in, her friend, Cherie Barnes, a semi-truck driver also from Milton, Wisc., said she saw the Wisconsin fight part of a broader “attack on the middle class.” Nodding, Grveles chimed in, “It’s a class war—that’s what it is.”

UPDATE 5, Saturday, Feb. 19, 5:10 p.m. CST: Here’s an encouraging statistic for those who followed the massive Wisconsin labor protests today. An estimated 60,000 people turned out, most of them supporting labor but thousands of them backing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. But not a single arrest was made around the capital, according to the Madison police.

Listening to right-wing posterboy Andrew Breitbart this afternoon, however, you’d have thought the entire event were on the brink of chaos. Breitbart’s speech before the pro-Walker contingent was a long ramble, bouncing from one strange topic to the next. Nazi signs, tea partiers supposedly getting punched in the face, and on and on. The worst of it came when Breitbart pointed to the marching labor protesters and declared that “anarchists were central” to their movement.

Now, I didn’t embed with the labor folks nor trail them the entire day. But rest assured I didn’t see a single “anarchist” in the throngs of people, no one stirring up trouble just for the sake of it, no one instigating fights with the pro-Walker people or lighting cars on fire or whatever it is that Andrew Breitbart thinks anarchists do. I saw moms and dads and their kids, teachers and plumbers, security guards and cops and firefighters in kilts. Lots of college students. Plenty more retirees. No anarchists.

That was the best Breitbart could muster. In fact, none of the speakers at the counter-protest had any kind of substantive response to the labor folks’ position other than to call them greedy or lazy or irresponsible. And even those accusations didn’t last long. By late afternoon, the counter-protest was over, the Americans for Prosperity signs nowhere to be found. The other side of the capital, by contrast, was as loud as ever, and the biggest rally of the week would last until sundown. As I walked to a nearby hotel to write this, there were thousands of them inside and outside the capital.

UPDATE 6, Sunday, Feb. 20, 8:55 a.m., CST: I’m sitting in a breakfast joint a block from the Wisconsin capital building, the stately makeshift home for thousands of labor protesters who’ve been participating in the events of the past. Last night, I threw down a borrowed sleeping bag and joined them.

The sleepover crew was a boisterous one. A clutch of young people around the corner from my sleeping spot (photo here) picked at some guitars and faintly played the harmonica. A few chants echoed through the capital rotunda well into the night. It wasn’t until well past 3 o’clock in the morning that the sleep-in crowd, myself included, took to their sleeping bags, mats, coats, paper signs, or just the stone floor to catch some shut-eye.

The night wasn’t entirely without incident. Around 2 a.m., police officers in the capital ordered most of the protesters’ signs to be removed and either trashed or stored in a massive pile for later use. That demand peeved a few people, to be sure, but for the most part everyone did as they were told. To their credit, the cops were firm but polite, taking questions, receptive to protesters’ concerns.

On another note, what to do with the 14 Wisconsin Senate Democrats. They fled the state to prevent a vote on Republican Governor Scott Walker’s bill to gut collective bargaining rights for public sector unions, and now are in hiding in northern Illinois. Here’s one ambitious idea labor folks floated last night: Taking the Senate Democrats a multi-city tour, drumming up support for them and organized labor by taking them on the road. Labor officials said it could be a fundraising tool not to mention a way of building similar Madison-like movements in other states. Of course, that’s just one idea of many tossed out, but I thought I’d pass it along.

UPDATE 7, Sunday, Feb. 20, 10:25 a.m. CST: Somewhat lost amid all the protests and counter-protests are some of the details buried in Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill. Here’s one worth keeping in mind: Walker’s bill would make radical changes to Wisconsin’s BadgerCare, a health-care program for uninsured, lower-income families with children under the age of 19.

Right now, Wisconsin’s elected lawmakers control how the program works. But Walker’s bill would give that power to the state’s Health Services department secretary, allowing that official emergency rulemaking power to make changes to BadgerCare. “The law would, however, dramatically limit the ability of citizens to have a voice in the future of Badger Care,” the Wisconsin Farmers Union said in a statement. Currently 775,000 people in Wisconsin receive BadgerCare.

UPDATE 8, Sunday, Feb. 20, 5:30 p.m. CST: Sheets of freezing rain and the occasional snowfall forced Madison’s labor protesters inside throughout the day on Sunday. At noon, thousands of protesters hailing from Wisconsin, California, North Carolina, and Michigan filled the rotunda of the Wisconsin capital building. They pounded on drums, chanted, played the bagpipes, and delivered speech after speech streamed through a small megaphone.

Later that afternoon, a hundred or so people, media included, jammed into a room at the Madison Senior Center to protest the major overhaul to the state’s low-income health care programs outlined in Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s budget “repair” bill. Walker’s bill would shift control over those programs, which currently serve around 1.2 million people, from the legislature to the unelected Health Services department secretary. The secretary would have emergency rulemaking power for the program, allowing the secretary to bypass the legislature altogether. Unions, health care advocates, and selected speakers cast Walker’s health care provision as a power grab intended to circumvent elected officials. The health care press conference attracted half a dozen members of the media, with other attendees spilling out into the hallway.

UPDATE 9, Sunday, Feb. 20, 6:20 p.m. CST: You knew something like this was coming. In a blog post today, right-wing radio host and ex-Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams said he plans to pose as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union and stir up trouble at a Sacramento labor union event. He’s also urging his readers and other anti-labor folks to do the same in states around the country. “If I do get the ‘in’ I am going to do my darnedest to get podium access and take the mic to do that rant from there,” Williams wrote. “With any luck and if I can manage the moments to build up to it, I can probably get a cheer out of the crowd for something extreme.” Here’s Williams’ plan in full, per his post:

Here is what I am doing in Sacramento, where they are holding a 5:30 PM event this coming Tuesday: (1) I signed up as an organizer (2) with any luck they will contact me and I will have an “in” (3) in or not I will be there and am asking as many other people as can get there to come with, all of us in SEIU shirts (those who don’t have them we can possibly buy some from vendors likely to be there) (4) we are going to target the many TV cameras and reporters looking for comments from the members there (5) we will approach the cameras to make good pictures…signs under our shirts that say things like “screw the taxpayer!” and “you OWE me!” to be pulled out for the camera (timing is important because the signs will be taken away from us) (6) we will echo those slogans in angry sounding tones to the cameras and the reporters. (7) if I do get the ‘in’ I am going to do my darnedest to get podium access and take the mic to do that rant from there…with any luck and if I can manage the moments to build up to it, I can probably get a cheer out of the crowd for something extreme.

Williams goes on to say that his followers trying the same stunt should avoid confrontation because labor protesters “WILL have a mob mentality and ARE dangerous.” He says lots of tea party groups have been barraging him with information about similar stunts and “vowing to participate and come up with their own creative ruses!”

Some context about Mark Williams. He was reportedly kicked out of the California-based Tea Party Express after publishing a racist screed on the same blog, MarkTalk.com. Written in the voice of a slave, the letter said that slavery was “a great gig,” among other incendiary remarks. (Here’s William’s racist letter in full.)

The labor union officials I’ve interviewed in the past few days say they’ve been on guard for these sort of schemes. They say they’ll be weeding any undercover anti-labor people.

UPDATE 10, Monday, Feb. 21, 8:11 a.m. CST: Pizza from around the world. To show their support for the labor protesters here in Madison, people from California to Egypt have been calling into local pizza joints and ordering pizzas to be delivered to the Wisconsin state capital. For Ian’s Pizza, located just a stone’s throw from the capital building, it started with a single anonymous call from California. Then the orders starting pouring in from around the country, and then around the world. One call even came in from Cairo, the epicenter of Egypt’s massive protests that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The guys at The Uptake have a great video story on the protests and pizza. Watch it here, or go to their site where you can find lots more video coverage of the events in Madison.

UPDATE 11, Monday, Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m. CST: This evening, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker gave his first major press conference since the labor protests here in Madison exploded in size over the weekend. With a deafening crowd chanting “tell the truth” just down the hall, Walker refused to budge on his controversial budget repair bill that would, among other things, strip public-sector unions of their collective bargaining rights. “We’re broke,” Walked told members of the media in a packed press conference.

The governor blasted the 14 state senate Democrats who’ve fled the state as a way to prevent Walker’s bill from passing. “You’ve had your time. It’s time to come home…Make your case; make your argument. Do what the people of the state of Wisconsin elected you to do.”

Calling his bill “incredibly fair,” Walker said he won’t consider letting public-sector unions keep their collective bargaining rights, even though those same unions have agreed to financial concessions demanded by Walker. If collective bargaining rights aren’t eliminated, Walker said, then local governments won’t be able to balance their budgets in coming years. “We’ve got to balance the budget and we can’t do it with a short-term fix.”

The media’s questions for Walker weren’t particularly tough, with no one questioning the governor about the bill’s plan for no-bid auctions of state energy assets, for instance. Perhaps the most eye-opening part was the pack of protesters chanting and drumming just down the hall from the press conference. They stood chest to chest with a line of police officers standing three deep, keeping the protesters away from conference. That didn’t stop the dull roar from bleeding into the conference, though, and the crowd kept it up for close to an hour.

UPDATE 12, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 7:10 a.m. CST: Another night in the Capitol, another night of peaceful, quiet protest by the hundreds, if not thousands, of labor supporters camped out in Wisconsin’s Capitol building. But the nature of the fight changes today. Unlike the past few days of labor-dominated protests and occupation of the Capitol building, the Wisconsin legislature returns to work today.

Excluding, of course, the 14 state senate Democrats currently in out-of-state hiding to prevent a vote on Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill. They fled the state in protest over Walker’s plan to eliminate public-sector unions, the most controversial provision in the bill, leaving the senate without a quorum. Today, however, Republicans in the legislature plan to lure Democrats back to Madison by threatening to vote on bills that Democrats loath or with the potential to embarass them.

Senate Republicans plan to vote on a voter ID bill, for instance. The bill would require voters to show a valid ID with their current address in order to vote. Democrats oppose the measure. They say it’s an indirect attack on young voters, especially college students, who may not change their ID when they go off to college or don’t change their address when moving from one residence to another. The way Republicans see it, an effort to ram through the voter ID bill could convince their in-hiding counterparts to dash back to Madison. Republicans also want to vote on a resolution commending the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Why? A Democrat, Dave Hansen of Green Bay, first offered the resolution, and Republicans see a vote as a way to embarass Hansen.

Either way, the Democrats’ departure has left Republicans here in Madison up in arms. In his press conference on Monday, Governor Walker devoted plenty of time to bashing the Democrats. “You’ve had your time. It’s time to come home.”

Whether or not the Democrats will be lured back remains to be seen. They’ve given no indication they plan to return to Madison. And labor leaders have even toyed with the idea of taking the 14 senate Democrats on a nationwide tour, a chance to rally around their cause and raise money. Already, left-wing groups have raised $279,000 for the Democrats in hiding.

Return or not, the battle shifts into the hands of the legislature today. The labor protesters will still be seen and heard, but it’s their representatives in the Wisconsin Capitol who now decide how this fight plays out.

UPDATE 13, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 9:25 a.m, CST: Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, which would strip away collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions, is a drastic, some would say draconian, piece of legislation. But it is not without precedent. As Milwaukee County executive, Walker fought to fire the county’s unionized prison guards and replace them with private contractors. As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow pointed out Monday night, the results were disastrous.

Walker’s initial attempt to sweep out unionized prison guards was blocked by the Milwaukee County board. But in March 2010, he unilaterally rammed through the measure under the guise of a budget crisis, a power grab that angered officials in Milwaukee County. To replace the union workers Walker hired Wackenhut, a controversy-riddled British contractor. (It was employees of a Wackenhut subsidiary at the heart of the Kabul embassy scandal, where, as Mother Jones first reported, contractors were revealed to be a crew of drunken, debaucherous hooligans that hazed other contractors and partied like out-of-control frat brothers. Think vodka butt shots.) In another controversy, Wackenhut security guards were videotaped sleeping on the job at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, revelations that shook the industry and resulted in a heap of criticism for the company.

Walker’s hiring of Wackenhut quickly became a nightmare. After ramming through the proposal, an arbiter said Walker overreached, and repealed the firing of the unionized prison guards. That arbiter ordered Milwaukee County to rehire the union workers and repay them for the wages they lost, costing the county upwards of $500,000.

UPDATE 14, Feb. 22, 1:30 p.m. CST: Think the massive protests in Madison, Wisconsin, now at the eight-day mark, have gone on too long? Well, hunker down: They’ve got quite a ways to go, at least according to Democrats in the Wisconsin legislature.

A source close to the labor movement who helped organize the protests told me earlier today that Democrats in the Wisconsin Assembly have defined their strategy like this: Delay, delay, delay. The Assembly reconvened today for what’s been a fiery, contentious debate over Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s controversial budget bill, which would strip public-sector unions of collective bargaining rights. I watched the Assembly’s debate in person for half an hour this afternoon. For the bulk of the time, Assemblyman Peter Barca, who leads the Democratic caucus, lashed out at Republicans for allegedly violating the legislature rules and customs by attempting to vote on Walker’s bill without enough Democrats present. Barca’s assault was a long-winded one that went on and on, and it was followed by a angry rebuttal from the Assembly speaker, Jeff Fitzgerald. It was, however, plenty entertaining. (You can watch all the action in the Assembly live here.) 

Of course, state senate Democrats have resorted to most blatant form of delay: fleeing the state. The 14 senate Democrats are scattered throughout northern Illinois, while today senate Republicans took up and voted on a handful of smaller bills. (They can’t vote on Walker’s bill because legislature rules mandate at least one member of the other party to vote on financial bills like Walker’s. GOPers need 20 lawmakers present, as there are only 19 of their party.) Democrats’ decision to flee has earned them all sorts of attacks from Gov. Walker and the senate Republicans, but it’s also reaped financial benefits. According to the source close to labor leadership, the in-hiding Democrats have raised $650,000 since fleeing.

An online nationwide petition has similarly pulled in massive support. More than 35,000 people have signed WeAreWisconsin.org petition condemning Walker’s bill. That total surprised progressive organizers who launched the petition on Sunday.

wisconsin solidarityFlickr/Vince_Lamb.UPDATE 15, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 4:25 p.m. CST: The protests are spreading. What began in Madison, Wisconsin, a hotbed of organized labor, has now spread to at least Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia by Tuesday evening. Throughout the week, public actions connected to labor rights and support for Wisconsin public workers are expected to take place in 27 states, from New Jersey to Idaho. If the national movement comes together, it will be one of the biggest moments for American organized labor in decades.

One idea that’s not catching fire is cutting collective bargaining rights for unions, as Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker wants to with his budget repair bill. At least four other Republican governors have publicly stated that they don’t intend to push for similar bills in the near future. “My belief is as long as people know what they’re doing, collective bargaining is fine,” Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott said in a radio interview. Rick Snyder, the newly-elected Republican governor of Michigan, told the Wall Street Journal he has no intention of “picking fights” with organized labor. “We’re going to go negotiate with our unions in a collective-bargaining fashion to achieve goals. It’s not picking fights. It’s about getting people to come together and say here are the facts, here are the common-ground solutions.” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett also recently said, “We’ll begin negotiations with the public-sector unions and anticipate we’ll conduct those in good faith.”

And Indiana Republican Governor Mitch Daniels recently he said he won’t pursue right-to-work legislation in his state, a reform that would gut unions. That didn’t stop state House Republicans in the Indiana legislature from introducing right-to-work legislation, which led to House Democrats fleeing the state, a la Wisconsin Senate Democrats. But unlike Wisconsin’s Walker, Daniels, a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2012, has told Republican lawmakers to drop the bill that brought the legislature to a grinding halt.

UPDATE 16, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 9:40 a.m. CST: How will it end?

That’s the question looming large heading into the ninth day of protests against Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill here in chilly Madison. As I report today, the fight pitting Walker and the Republicans against labor and the left could end in four different ways. They are:

  • Outcome #1: The state Senate Democrats return to Wisconsin, and Walker’s union-busting bill passes.
  • Outcome #2: Governor Walker and the Republicans ditch the collective-bargaining ban.
  • Outcome #3: Walker and Senate Republicans could use a constitutional end-run to pass the budget repair bill.
  • Outcome #4: Walker could put off the final fight over collective bargaining until spring.

You can read my full story on the four endgames in Wisconsin here, where I lay out how each outcome might or might not come to be.

UPDATE 16, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 11:15 a.m. CST: On February 22, an alt-news editor posing as David Koch called Walker’s office to talk about the union protests in Wisconsin. Walker answered, and the alt-weekly editor recorded the entire 20-minute conversation. My colleague Adam Weinstein has the story and the audio here: Did Scott Walker Get Crank-Call Pwned? (AUDIO) UPDATE: YES.

Adam also has a story on Jeff Cox, an Indiana deputy attorney general who has called for the use of “live ammunition” against Wisconsin protesters

UPDATE 17, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 8:00 p.m. CST: Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker sure knows how to stick to the message. At his second press conference in three days, Walker again ripped the 14 state Senate Democrats for remaining in hiding and preventing a vote on Walker’s controversial budget bill. He refused to budge on his plan to eliminate collective bargaining for most public-sector unions. And he insisted that his plan, and his plan alone, would alleviate somewhat dire Wisconsin’s fiscal problems.

He stuck pretty close to his talking points even when asked about the controversy of the day: the prankster who called Walker’s office and spoke with the governor for 20 minutes pretending to right-wing billionaire David Koch. (The caller was in fact Ian Murphy, a gonzo journalist who edits the Buffalo Beast magazine.) When asked about the stunt, Walker seemed nonplussed, hardly acknowledging the spoof. “The bottom line is that the things I’ve said are things I’ve said publicly all along,” he said. “I’m not going to allow one prank phone call to be a disruption from the reality.

As I’ve reported, one campaign watchdog group is probing some of Walker’s remarks in his conversation with faux David Koch. The Public Campaign Action Fund (PCAF) is looking into whether Walker might’ve suggested political support for GOPers in the swing districts that support Walker’s bill—support that PCAF alleges could be in violation of Wisconsin law. Another watchdog, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is also demanding an investigation into whether Walker broke the law in sending state troopers to the house of state Senate Democratic leader Mark Miller. “By abusing his position as governor to ask the WSP to send a message to Sen. Miller,” wrote CREW executive director Melanie Sloan, “Governor Walker obtained an unlawful benefit—the use of the troopers—in an effort to gain an advantage in his wage dispute with the state’s public employees.”

UPDATE 18, Thursday, Feb. 24, 12:10 CST: The legislative battle could be nearing its end. At least that’s the story in Wisconsin’s state Assembly, where lawmakers have been debating for nearly 50 hours—the longest in generations—on amendments to Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s controversial budget bill. The hundreds of amendments offered by Assembly Democrats amounted to more of a stall tactic than actual debate over the bill’s components, a way of drawing out the process in hopes of killing the ban on collective bargaining for many public-sector unions in the bill. A vote in the Assembly on the bill could happen as early as today.

Meanwhile, Walker and state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican, ordered state troopers to the homes of the 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state last week to prevent a vote on the budget bill. Fitzgerald suggested the Democrats were sneaking home at night—a claim denied by the Democrats—and thus should report back to Madison immediately. After hearing the trooper news, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group, doubled down on its demand that the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board investigate Walker and Fitzgerald’s use of state troopers. Read more on CREW’s demand here.

UPDATE 19, Thursday, Feb. 24, 4:35 p.m. CST: To lure the 14 in-hiding Wisconsin state Senate Democrats back to Wisconsin, Republicans passed a rule on Tuesday preventing any lawmaker who misses two or more sessions from getting paid by direct deposit. Absentee senators can only get paid by picking up their checks in the Wisconsin capitol building on the senate floor during session. Choking off the Democrats’ modest salary, the Republican thinking goes, could force Senate Democrats to return to the legislature.

At least one Democrat, though, isn’t biting. “I’m not thinking twice about it, to be honest,” said one Democratic state senator, who requested anonymity to speak openly, when asked about the GOP’s ploy. “The longer they hold my check, the more they look like dicks.”

The 14 Senate Democrats fled the state in order to prevent a vote on Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s controversial budget bill, which would eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions in the Badger State. The Democrats left the state on February 17, around the time massive protests organized by labor groups erupted in Madison in opposition the budget bill. The Democrats are holed up in Illinois awaiting any kind of breakthrough in the budget debate before they return. But it’s been a productive six days for them as well: Together they’ve raised more than $650,000 since they began their out-of-state standoff.

UPDATE 20, Friday, Feb. 25, 8:08 a.m. CST: The battle is one-half over. In the wee hours of this morning, the Wisconsin Assembly approved Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill in the ugliest of moves. With 15 Democrat speakers still to go, and the traditional motion to end debate not yet raised, Republican leadership sneakily called for a vote and opened for the voting process. For a few seconds. Just long enough so that a 51-vote GOP majority could approve the bill.

So fast was the vote that 28 Assembly members—25 Democrats, two GOPers, and one independent—didn’t even get their vote in. Opened and closed. Just like that. Here’s my full report on the vote last night.

UPDATE 21, Friday, Feb. 25, 9:06 a.m. CST: A few minutes past 1 a.m. this morning, Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly used a sneaky procedural trick to end debate and blast through Republican Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill. Assembly members looked haggard and grizzled. Many were unshaven, with deep bags under their eyes. It was a grim scene, with Democrats yelled “Shame!” as GOPers passed the bill and went home. At least one big-name Wisconsin Republican has blasted lawmakers debating and voting on bills late at night or early in the morning and vowed to end the practice: Scott Walker.

During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Walker pledged to do away with late-night legislative sessions. He promised to sign a bill that would block the legislature from voting on bills after 10 p.m. or before 9 a.m. “I have two teenagers and I tell them that nothing good happens after midnight. That’s even more true in politics,” he said in a campaign statement [emphasis mine]. “The people of Wisconsin deserve to know what their elected leaders are voting on.”

His Republican counterparts in the Assembly, led by Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, clearly don’t share those sentiments.

UPDATE 22, Saturday, Feb. 26, 11:07 a.m. CST: For the protesters, today is the big day.

Labor and progressive groups are planning rallies at all 50 state capitols and in other major cities today in support of the tens of thousands of protesters here in Madison. The nationwide rally is being called the “Rally to Save the American Dream.” Here in Madison, the rally is expected to be the largest of the past 10 days, bigger than a week ago when nearly 70,000 people marched in and around the Wisconsin state capitol.

It’s midday right now, and already thousands of protesters are massed outside the capitol here in Madison. Some chanting the familiar “Kill the bill!” Others march with colorful signs in hand. Buses from Milwaukee and Racine and other Wisconsin cities are reportedly on their way.

Of course, it appears doubtful that even a crowd of 100,000 here in Madison will sway Republican Governor Scott Walker or the handful of GOP senators thought to be on the fence about Walker’s controversial budget repair bill. In his third press conference of the week, Walker made no mention on Friday of negotiating with labor groups. He said he’d spent the day flying to the districts of state Senate Democrats who are currently in hiding in Illinois to prevent the senate from voting on Walker’s bill. Those senators, though, have refused to return to Wisconsin, and show no sign of planning to anytime soon.

UPDATE 23, Saturday, Feb. 26, 5:10 p.m. CST: The event lived up to its billing. More than 100,000 people descended on the Wisconsin state capitol today to protest Republican Governor Scott Walker’s controversial budget bill, a 144-page piece of legislation (PDF) that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions.

The throngs of people filling the streets around the capitol came from all over the state and from every union in the country, a sea of red and white and green and blue and orange. Emceeing the main 3 p.m. rally was actor and Madison native Bradley Whitford, known for his role on the show “The West Wing” and the Adam Sandler flick “Billy Madison.” Guest speakers included Mary Bell, head of Wisconsin’s main teachers union, Peter Yarrow from the band Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Episcopal bishop from Milwaukee, and a host of union leaders and Wisconsinites.

The headline afternoon rally lasted for two hours before the crowd slowly began to disperse. But the line to enter the state capitol building itself remained massive, stretching around the building and leaving protesters waiting outside for 20 to 30 minutes to get inside. So big was the crowd this afternoon that foot traffic on the streets surrounding the capitol ground to a halt on several occasions, the tens of thousands of people left to stand in the frigid cold.

The 100,000-plus people in Madison were joined by tens of thousands more protesters gathering in state capitols and cities around the country, all part of the “Rally to Save the American Dream” organized by labor unions and MoveOn.org. Protesters turned out in Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston, Montpelier, Vt., Frankfort, Ky., and many more. “Today is all about Wisconsin, because something special happened there,” said Justin Ruben, MoveOn.org’s executive director at a New York rally.

UPDATE 24, Sunday, Feb. 27, 10:45 a.m. CST: The day after as many as 100,000 people—the estimates varied depending on whom you asked—flooded the streets of Madison to protest a bill that would strip public-sector unions of their collective bargaining rights, the man behind that bill, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker, defended his bill on his biggest platform yet.

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” today, Walker continued to defend his bill, as he has for the past two weeks. “We’re facing a $3.6 billion dollar deficit,” he told NBC’s David Gregory. “With this budget repair bill, we give those schools and local governments almost a billion and half dollars in savings.” Specifically on the issue of collective bargaining rights, Walker said, “The reality is, even beyond the 5 and 12 [contribution offers made by unions], collective bargaining does have a cost.”

Appearing on “Meet the Press” not long after Walker was Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO union. There was something of a controversy surrounding Trumka’s invitation to the show. Last weekend, after 70,000 protesters turned out in Madison to protest Walker’s bill, not a single labor leader was asked onto a Sunday talk show. Labor groups cried foul, and demanded that someone from labor appear on a show this weekend. On Thursday, NBC announced that not only would it have an exclusive interview with Walker but that Trumka would also appear on “Meet the Press.”

Trumka insisted on the show that Walker’s bill was “not about a budget crisis.” The AFL-CIO leader stressed that public-sector workers get paid less than their private counterparts, and that the public pension in Wisconsin is one of the healthiest in the nation. “No person should have to face the loss of their rights or the loss of their jobs,” Trumka said.

UPDATE 25, Sunday, Feb. 27, 1:55 p.m. CST: There are only a few hours now until police are expected to clear out the few thousand protesters still clogging up the Wisconsin state capitol. So far, that isn’t stopping the protesters young and old from filling the capitol rotunda with chants and screams and drumming, as they have for nearly two weeks.

It’s unclear exactly how police, who are right now pacing nervously amongst the crowd, plan to eject the protesters from the building. For much of the day they’ve limited access to the building, letting more people exit than they allow in.

A small band of 50 to 60 protesters announced today that they plan to be arrested when the time comes to leave the capitol. They plan to do it in a peaceful way, but say they won’t leave the capitol on their own accord.

UPDATE 26, Sunday, Feb. 27, 6:50 p.m. CST: It was the eviction that never happened. Police inside the capitol were expected to remove protesters at 4 p.m. But 4 p.m. came and went, and nothing happened. Yes, the protesters have been mostly moved off of ground floor of the rotunda and up to the 1st floor. But apart from that, the party continues here inside the Wisconsin capitol. Check my Twitter feed for up-to-the-second updates.

UPDATE 27, Monday, Feb. 28, 7:50 a.m. CST: I have seen plenty of signs and statements the past two weeks in Madison, Wisconsin, connecting the labor protests there with the uprising in Egypt. So many, in fact, that I wrote an entire story about the Wisconsin-Cairo connection. You can read that story here, at TomDispatch.com. Here’s an excerpt:

The call reportedly arrived from Cairo. Pizza for the protesters, the voice said. It was Saturday, February 20th, and by then Ian’s Pizza on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, was overwhelmed. One employee had been assigned the sole task of answering the phone and taking down orders. And in they came, from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, from Morocco, Haiti, Turkey, Belgium, Uganda, China, New Zealand, and even a research station in Antarctica. More than 50 countries around the globe. Ian’s couldn’t make pizza fast enough, and the generosity of distant strangers with credit cards was paying for it all.

Those pizzas, of course, were heading for the Wisconsin state capitol, an elegant domed structure at the heart of this Midwestern college town. For nearly two weeks, tens of thousands of raucous, sleepless, grizzled, energized protesters have called the stately capitol building their home. As the police moved in to clear it out on Sunday afternoon, it was still the pulsing heart of the largest labor protest in my lifetime, the focal point of rallies and concerts against a politically-charged piece of legislation proposed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a hard-right Republican. That bill, officially known as the Special Session Senate Bill 11, would, among other things, eliminate collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s public-sector unions, in effect eviscerating the unions themselves.

“Kill the bill!” the protesters chant en masse, day after day, while the drums pound and cowbells clang. “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”

One World, One Pain

The spark for Wisconsin’s protests came on February 11th. That was the day the Associated Press published a brief story quoting Walker as saying he would call in the National Guard to crack down on unruly workers upset that their bargaining rights were being stripped away. Labor and other left-leaning groups seized on Walker’s incendiary threat, and within a week there were close to 70,000 protesters filling the streets of Madison.

UPDATE 28, Monday, Feb. 28, 2:40 p.m. EST: Yesterday, the protesters occupying the Wisconsin state capitol fought to stay inside the beautiful structure, and won. But this morning, they awoke to find locked doors and blocked access to the building entirely.

According to reports on the ground in Madison, the police have stopped letting people into the capitol altogether. In days past, they had limited access—using only one door as an entrance point, or allowing one person in for every two people who leave—but didn’t seal up the building entirely. Around mid-morning, there was approximately 300 people waiting outside the capitol building, according to Tom Bird with the Capitol City Leadership Committee, a group created to organize the protests inside the capitol.

The latest update from the capitol is a news release from the AFL-CIO alleging that the windows of the capitol were to be welded shut to prevent sneaking food inside to protesters. Here’s a statement from AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale:

As we speak, Gov. Scott Walker & the Senate R’s are literally having the windows of the capital welded shut to keep people from passing food into the building to the people inside.

Our attorneys are collecting affidavits from the people who witnessed this, along with people who have been illegally denied access to a public, government, building.

We will be filing for a TRO [temporary restraining order] to open the Capitol.

It is a sad for democracy when Governor Walker and his R Senate allies are locking the people of Wisconsin out of their own state capitol.

UPDATE 29, Monday, Feb. 28, 4:15 p.m. EST: It now looks like the window-welding story coming out of the Wisconsin state capitol was a mere misunderstanding. (Plus, it’s hard to see how that would in any way be legal.) But we do have photos from inside the capitol showing that the windows have been bolted shut to prevent from food from reaching the people inside. Here’s one such photo via @ericming5:

     I didn’t see any bolts or latched-down windows the dozens of times I visited the capitol in the past few weeks, so that means they must be new. Protesters on the inside say it’s just another strategy used by the police to force out those people still occupying the capitol. I haven’t heard anything new yet from the police themselves or the Walker administration which no doubt wants the protesters out.

UPDATE 30, Monday, Feb. 28, 5:17 p.m. EST: The two-week standoff between pro-labor protesters and Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker is taking a political toll. On Walker, that is.

A new survey from Public Policy Polling released on Monday found that Walker’s support has eroded among Wisconsin voters. In a hypothetical rematch with his 2010 Democratic opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, 52 percent of those voters say they’d opt for Barrett, while 45 percent picked Walker. That’s a flip of the actual 2010 result, which saw Walker beat Barrett, 52 to 45 percent.

Here’s PPP’s takeaway:

The difference between how folks would vote now and how they voted in November can almost all be attributed to shifts within union households. Voters who are not part of union households have barely shifted at all- they report having voted for Walker by 7 points last fall and they still say they would vote for Walker by a 4 point margin. But in households where there is a union member voters now say they’d go for Barrett by a 31 point margin, up quite a bit from the 14 point advantage they report having given him in November.

It’s actually Republicans, more so than Democrats or independents, whose shifting away from Walker would allow Barrett to win a rematch if there was one today. Only 3% of the Republicans we surveyed said they voted for Barrett last fall but now 10% say they would if they could do it over again. That’s an instance of Republican union voters who might have voted for the GOP based on social issues or something else last fall trending back toward Democrats because they’re putting pocketbook concerns back at the forefront and see their party as at odds with them on those because of what’s happened in the last month.

UPDATE 31, Tuesday, March 1, 10:05 a.m. EST: Today, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker will unveil his proposal for the state’s 2011-2013 budget. That’s right—Walker is opening up yet another front on the state’s budget war. Remember, the “budget repair bill” he announced a few weeks ago concerns Wisconsin’s current 2009-2011 budget, which ends at the end of June.

This afternoon, he’s expected to drop another bomb, announcing $1 billion in funding cuts for schools and local governments, an overhaul to how the University of Wisconsin system is organized, and more cuts to low-income health care. The state faces a $165 million deficit right now, and a projected $3.6 billion deficit over the next two years. Wisconsinites can partly thank Walker for that deficit, after he pushed through tax cuts in a special session earlier this year.

Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans are heaping pressure on each other to relent in Wisconsin’s two-week budget standoff. A pair of progressive groups, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America, are planning a recall campaign aimed at vulnerable state GOP senators in Wisconsin, Talking Points Memo reports. Recorded by a Wisconsin schoolteacher, the robocall will target 50,000 voters in the districts of GOP senators Robert Cowles, Michael Ellis, Dan Kapanke, Luther Olsen, and Dale Schultz. On Sunday, rumors flew around the state capitol that Schultz had decided to vote against Walker’s repair bill, but Schultz denied the rumors.

At the same time, Walker has given the 14 state senate Democrats in hiding a 24-hour ultimatum to return to Wisconsin for a vote on restructuring the state’s debt. The vote has already passed the Assembly, Wisconsin’s lower house, but is stuck in the senate because the Democrats refuse to return to the state as a way of blocking a vote on Walker’s controversial repair bill.

UPDATE 32, Tuesday, March 1, 12:35 p.m. EST: This morning, a county judge in Wisconsin issued a temporary restraining order demanding the Wisconsin state capitol be opened to the public on the day Republican Governor Scott Walker delivers his 2011-2013 budget address. The capitol had been sealed off to people on the outside, leaving a small number of protesters left inside the rotunda. According to the judge’s order, the capitol must remain open under normal business hours until a trial court schedules a hearing on the issue.

UPDATE 33, Saturday, March 5, 11:38 p.m. EST: On Friday, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker followed through on his threat to jettison state workers by sending out layoff notices to 1,500 public employees. Now, that doesn’t mean those employees on the chopping block are out of work quite yet. Walker claims the job losses, which could happen as early as April 4, can be averted if the 14 state senate Democrats who fled the state to prevent a vote on Walker’s “budget repair bill” return to work in Madison. The Democrats dashed across the state border into Illinois on February 17 to prevent the state senate from having the 20-vote quorum to vote on Walker’s bill. “Without Senate action within 15 days, individual employees may begin to receive potential termination notifications,” a spokesman for Walker told Reuters.

Walker, of course, insists the layoff notices are purely a fiscal issue. But it’s worth bearing in mind, as I reported a week ago, that Walker has a history of using layoffs as political leverage, threatening job cuts to ram through his own agenda:

In the fall of 2009, Milwaukee County’s budget was in bad shape. Facing a $3 million deficit, Walker, then the county executive, went looking for places to cut. In late October, he announced plans to axe 180 county workers by Thanksgiving as a way to balance the budget. With the year drawing to a close, Walker argued, the only way to solve Milwaukee County’s financial headache was layoffs.

Not long after, though, county department chiefs returned to Walker with promises to save up to a million dollars through non-employee cuts of their own. Just as soon as he’d announced that pink slips were going out, Walker backed off. No one was getting laid off, he announced.

But here’s the kicker: In an interview a few days after backing down, Walker told a Madison radio station that the layoff threat was merely a ploy. “I needed to get their attention to show how serious we were about having a balanced budget,” Walker said on the “Sly in the Morning” show on WTDY radio.

Are we seeing the same thing now, with Walker as governor? Sure looks like it. At the very least, it’s helpful to know that this isn’t the first time Walker’s held public jobs over the cliff’s edge to get his way.

For the third Saturday in a row, pro-labor protesters will converge on the state capitol in Madison to voice their opposition to Walker’s “repair” bill. Filmmaker Michael Moore is expected to make an appearance at the rally, which was organized by the Wisconsin Wave movement. Check back later for more on the turnout.

UPDATE 34, Sunday, March 6, 9:22 p.m. EST: For the third Saturday in a row, tens of thousands of people came to Madison, Wisconsin, to voice their opposition to Republican Governor Scott Walker’s controversial “budget repair bill.” What follows is a dispatch from Saturday’s rally from Madison-based writer and editor Maggie Messitt:


Photo by Maggie Messitt.Photo by Maggie Messitt.

Nearly 70,000 protesters descended upon Wisconsin’s state Capitol on Saturday, day 19 in the fight against Governor Walker’s “budget repair bill.” After nearly three weeks of highs and lows, the wear-and-tear of activism is increasingly evident. Exhaustion is written across the faces of those who have somehow managed to work full-time and protest just as much. Voices are strong, but quieter. Bodies are there, but less exuberant. One realization within them all: this is a marathon, and not a sprint.

Saturday’s “We are Wisconsin!” rally drew a crowd half the size of last week’s record-breaking protest, though still impressive. Lines that once moved quickly in and out of the capital were now long and laborious, ending with extensive security checks and body pat downs. Although some protesters were turned away, the rotunda and hallways were full. Musical instruments, drums and brass, filled the rotunda with noise, like a high school pep rally. And “the people’s microphone”—the single mic and speaker that helped keep the capital open for two weeks—was back on.

Outside, protesters had tambourines and drums, cowbells and harmonicas.  People were dancing and singing-along to “We are Family” and “Love Train.” Behind the rally stage, the closed northeastern doors were bespeckled with colorful sticky notes—messages to Scott Walker, Assembly members, police officers, and organizers. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and former Mayor Paul Soglin, opponents in the current mayoral election, stood together on stage and joined forces against the bill. “Scott Walker wants to pull us apart. And we’re going to pull it together!” Cieslewicz said.

Earlier in the week, protester numbers were small, rarely reaching above two or three hundred attendees, outside the capital or marching down State Street. People were at work. Children were at school. Many state employees were discussing early retirement, and individual state agencies were examining how Walker’s budget would affect their organization. The capital was closed. A legal battle to reopen its doors had been waged.

Previously, protestor conversations focused on the now: discovering what happened within the last few hours, minutes, seconds. Today, however, people moved slower. Families, co-workers, and unions gathered together to rally as a unit. Protesters who’d been at work all week exchanged institutional information and caught up on the news they’d missed. The week’s milestones were discussed: Walker’s budget speech; capital access restrictions; an assemblyman tackled by police officers; desks moved outside so Assemblymen could meet with constituents; the Americans for Prosperity bus tour across Wisconsin; Fox News caught in lies and the disappearance of their tent from the square; and the fear of pink slips.

Even protest chants have shifted in tone. “This is what democracy looks like” was the most commonly repeated rally cry, heard throughout the capital rotunda, around capital square, down Madison’s State Street, and inside office buildings, restaurants, and schools. Although these have not disappeared, a new wave of rhetoric and paraphernalia has started to infiltrate the crowds.

“We will win!” and the Badger victory song, “You rock. You rock. Wis-con-sin,” has started to dominate protester chants. And signs are expanding to include issues from inside Walker’s proposed budget: education, health care, and transportation.

“This is more than unions, now. This is a fight against the extinction of the middle class,” a protestor shouted, as she raised her right fist in the air and placed her left hand on my back. She was not alone. Thousands stood outside the capital today with power fists in the air and arms around their “neighbors to the left.” Together, in recognition of the courage it takes to stand up and say no, they chanted, “This is courage! This is courage!”

Filmmaker Michael Moore’s speech echoed those sentiments. Moore, a last minute addition to the rally roster, flew from New York in the middle of the night to march with firemen and other union workers. “I am so proud of you,” Moore shouted. “You have aroused the sleeping giant known as the working people!” With firefighters surrounding him on stage, Moore spoke of the nation’s growing disparities between the rich and the poor. Standing across from the statue of Hans Christian Heg, often considered Wisconsin’s original progressive, Moore reminded people that the wealth of the 400 richest Americans is more than the combined net worth of 50% of the US population. “America is not broke,” Moore said.

“For three weeks,” Moore went on, “You have stood in the cold, slept on the floor, skipped out of town to Illinois. Whatever it took, you’ve done it. What is certain: Madison is only the beginning!”

UPDATE 35, Wednedsay, March 9, 7:34 p.m. EST: Republicans in Wisconsin’s state Senate passed Republican Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill” on Wednesday night without the 14 Democrats who’d fled the state to block the vote. The vote was 18 to one, with Sen. Dale Schultz the lone “no” vote. The Republicans have taken the pieces of Walker’s legislation that affect unions—including eliminating bargaining rights for most public-sector unions—and made them into a separate bill which they claim they can pass without Democrats being present. Whether this is legal under Wisconsin’s constitution is unclear, and Democrats have decried the maneuver. In a one-word message on Twitter echoing the chant of protesters assembled at the Capitol, Sen. Chris Larson wrote, “Shame.”

The new, stripped-down bill will be voted on in the state Assembly when lawmakers convene on Thursday morning at 11 am.

Walker’s full repair bill passed the Assembly, Wisconsin’s lower house, several weeks ago under similarly controversial circumstances. Despite having 15 Democrats still on the waiting list to speak, Assembly Republicans voted to pass it just after 1 a.m. using what amounted to a procedural sneak attack.

The senate GOP’s blitz could prompt a general strike by Wisconsin’s unions. Late last month, one union umbrella group, the South Central Federation of Labor of Wisconsin, said it would contemplate organizing a strike by its 97 member groups, which represent 45,000 workers statewide, if Walker’s bill banning collective bargaining rights passed.

Stephanie Bloomingdale, the secretary-treasurer of Wisconsin’s AFL-CIO, sends Mother Jones this statement regarding the Senate Republicans’ vote Wednesday night to strip most public unions of their collective bargaining rights:

“Scott Walker will stop at nothing to cripple the labor movement and crush the middle class. Passing this bill in the dead of night is unethical and immoral. Wisconsin deserves better. America deserves better.”

UPDATE 36, Wednesday, March 9, 10:58 p.m. EST: At least one Democratic lawmaker in Wisconsin’s state legislature is raising the red flag about the blitz vote tonight by state Senate Republicans to pass a bill stripping most public-sector unions of their collective bargaining rights.

The top Democrat in the state Assembly, Peter Barca, contends that the hastily convened conference committee, which included members of the Senate and Assembly, used to pass the bill violated Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law. That law mandates at least 24-hour notice of “every meeting of a governmental body.” Look for Democrats in the Wisconsin legislature to challenge their GOP counterparts on whether there was sufficient notice of Wednesday night’s conference committee.

UPDATE 37, Thursday, March 10, 10:53 a.m. EST: Throughout the month-long battle pitting Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker and his GOP allies against labor unions and their supporters, Walker has insisted that eliminating collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions is not a move to bust up unions, but is instead a fiscal issue. To wit, late last month, Walker’s office sent out four consecutive press releases titled “Why collective bargaining is a fiscal issue.” But on Fox News yesterday, Republican Scott Fitzgerald, the state senate majority leader in Wisconsin, admitted there were political undertones to the bargaining ban, which he said would go a long way toward undercutting President Obama’s support in Wisconsin. Here’s what Fitzgerald said, via Think Progress:

Well if [Democrats] flip the state senate, which is obviously their goal with eight recalls going on right now, they can take control of the labor unions. If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much difficult, much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin. [emphasis mine]

UPDATE 38, Thursday, March 10, 4:47 p.m. EST: The Wisconsin Assembly, the state’s lower legislative chamber, passed a version of Republican Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill” by a vote of 53-42. The vote came despite being more than a dozen lawmakers still on the speaking list to debate the bill, which now heads to Walker for his signature.

The bill would eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions in Wisconsin, arguably the most controversial portion of the bill. It would also, as I reported today, give state officials the power to fire employees who strike, walk out, or participate in planned sick days, so long as the governor declared a state of emergency.

UPDATE 39, Friday, March 11, 11:11 a.m. EST: It’s official: This morning, Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker signed into law a retooled version of his controversial “budget repair bill.” The bill strips most public-sector unions of their right to collectively bargain, a provision that, when first introduced last month, sparked weeks of protests and anger from unions and Wisconsin citizens. The bill also gives state officials the power to fire employees who strike, walk out, or join organized sick days, provided the governor has declared a state of emergency.

Democrats, unions, and protesters face an uncertain future now that Walker has signed the bill into law. As I reported today, there are legal challenges looming and recall efforts underway, while the return of the “Wisconsin 14″—the Senate Democrats who fled the state in an attempt to block Walker’s bill—remains unclear. And that’s not all:

Then there’s the April 5 election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the first election in the aftermath of the Madison protests. Organizers and politicos tell me they see the Supreme Court race, pitting Democrat JoAnne Kloppenberg against Republican David Prosser, as a test of whether the energy of the past few weeks can translate into support at the ballot box. A veteran assistant attorney general, Kloppenberg is the underdog in the race, squaring off against the conservative Prosser, a current Supreme Court justice who handily won a four-way primary in February to decide the final two candidates. In that February primary, Prosser claimed 51 percent of the vote, with Kloppenberg at 28 percent. Of course, since that vote, public opinion has shifted significantly away from Walker, so if Democrats can connect Prosser to the governor and his unpopular “repair” bill, they might unseat the conservative front-runner.

And gathering momentum by the day are campaigns to recall Wisconsin lawmakers, in particular Republicans in swing districts. The Progressive Change Campaign Coalition and Democracy for America have raised upwards of $750,000—they drummed up $200,000 on Wednesday night alone—for TV ads in support of a recall campaign targeting three GOPers: Sens. Randy Hopper, Alberta Darling, and Dan Kapanke. MoveOn.org says it has also raised $825,000 for its recall efforts in Wisconsin.

But even with fundraising hauls like those, progressive groups are fighting an uphill battle, as history is very much against them. In the Badger State’s 162-year history, only two lawmakers have ever been successfully recalled.

Photo by Maggie MessittPhoto by Maggie Messitt

UPDATE 40, Sunday, March 13, 4:55 p.m. EST: They arrived from hundreds of miles away, rumbling into the streets of Madison on the fourth weekend of protesting Republican Governor Scott Walker and his bill, signed on Friday, stripping most public-sector unions of their collective bargaining rights. I’m talking, of course, about tractors. On Saturday, a fleet of them descended on the square surrounding the Wisconsin state capitol building in one of the largest protests of the past month.

Here’s an on-the-ground dispatch of Saturday’s rally from Madison-based writer and editor Maggie Messitt:

On Saturday morning, as Governor Scott Walker was getting a haircut in the Milwaukee suburbs (and tweeting about it), nearly three-dozen tractors, a combine, one hundred or so farmers, and a 1953 lime-green fire truck stormed Wisconsin’s state Capitol. Tens of thousands, and possibly as many as 100,000 protesters joined them, marking day 27 of the Wisconsin protests.

Barb and Dave Perkins—small business owners and long-time state residents—left their farm in Vermont, Wisconsin, at 6 a.m. for the Capitol. Barb parked their Prius at home, and Dave taxied them in their John Deere. They drove 23 miles per hour, avoided any pot-hole-filled roads, and arrived on the isthmus 90 minutes later. Just three miles short of their destination, the Perkins’ green tractor joined other Family Farm Defenders and Wisconsin Farmers Union members to “pull together” and support working families.

Tractorcade, a parade of farm vehicles and families, drove down John Nolen Drive, alongside frozen Lake Monona, and into downtown. As they paraded, I ran alongside, and spoke with farmers driving cab-less tractors. Dressed in jumpsuits and layers, protection from the below freezing temperatures, their concerns focused on rural issues, education cuts, BadgerCare, and sustainable agriculture initiatives.

“They have Joe the Plumber and we have John the Farmer,” one farmer shouted. “We’re all just people and that can’t be forgotten.”

According to the USDA, farms in Wisconsin account for more than 34 million acres of land, and more than half of the state’s 78,000 farms occupy less than 100 acres. Small farms like Vermont Valley are large in numbers and make significant contributions to Wisconsin’s kitchen table.

Laminated “I am a farmer. I will be heard” signs were fastened to the backs of farmers walking through Capitol Square, in front of their tractor-driving counterparts. As a variety of makes, models, and ages rolled around the streets, an outpouring of respect and appreciation came from the crowds of children, families, and dogs. Most vehicles, however, also had something to say: “It’s about freedom! Recall Walker”; “Wisconsin, let’s dump out the manure”; “I am small but I have rights”; “Don’t harm our farm”; and “Harvesting hope for the middle class.” Others simply drove and waved.

The Perkins, owners of Vermont Valley Community Farm, one of approximately 80 community supported agriculture (CSA) farms in southern Wisconsin, had papered their tractor with slogans suggested by neighbors: “Food for health, not greed or wealth”; “Sow seeds, not dissention”; “Cultivate Democracy”; “Grow Solidarity”; and “Farmers taking back Wisconsin.” Barb and Dave were leaning out the side and back windows. waving to protesters, feeling an intense connection between people on the curbs and those driving farm vehicles. “People were so happy to see us,” explained Barb. “Members were running up to the tractor, saying, ‘You’re my CSA! Thank you!'”

Throughout the preceding week, both state and private employees were discussing job security, potential moves out of state, health care fears, early retirement, and the domino effect of budget cuts and salary slashes. Despite the heightened anger amongst protesters from Wednesday onward, Saturday’s events and energy were a fusion of both mourning and rebirth.

On several corners of Capitol Square, volunteers shouted into megaphones, directing protesters toward the small tents and tables with petitions. “RECALL THEM ALL” signs and sandwich boards were everywhere. At one table, volunteers were answering questions regarding the recall process and protesters were signing petitions in an effort to force recall elections for 8 Republican Senators. “We’re only focusing on Senators right now,” one volunteer repeated more than once in my short time under the tent. “Assemblymen will come later.” With sixty days to collect signatures, the Wisconsin Democratic Party has 48 remaining.

Just a few meters away, a group of retirees was discussing the rules behind collecting signatures for Governor Walker in January 2012.

Demonstrators arrived downtown early and numbers only continued to rise. Many protest posters were traded in for signs of solidarity and advocacy: April 5th, Fab 14, and farm-focused slogans. Rhetoric was less about defending and more about a counteraction. From defensive to offensive. Although opposition hasn’t been erased from protester language and a fight is still inside of them, the grief I could hear in people’s voices was a thin thread within newly found strength.

The return of the “Wisconsin 14,” or the “Fab 14,” elevated the crowd’s excitement and purpose. The Democratic Senators—a group that includes both the longest serving state legislator in American political history and the youngest member of the Wisconsin Senate—were headliners in their own welcome home event. “We have become symbols of hope to hundreds of thousands of people,” said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar.

UPDATE 41, Thursday, March 17, 4:25 p.m. EST: The fight now heads to the courts.

In the days after Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker signed his fiercely contested “budget repair bill” into law, Madison officials have lodged multiple complaints alleging the bill’s passage was illegal. On March 11, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk sued the state, secretary of state, and four state lawmakers, saying the bill “contains substantive fiscal items within it, and the Wisconsin Senate did not have the required three-fifths of its members to vote.” The state Senate’s 14 Democrats fled Illinois during the debate on the “repair” bill to prevent such a vote, denying GOPers the needed quorum; but in the end, Republicans retooled the bill and passed it without the Democrats. The legality of that end-run is at the heart of Falk’s suit.

The second major suit challenging Walker’s bill, filed by Dane County’s district attorney, was announced on Wednesday. This suit alleges Wisconsin Senate Republicans failed to give proper notice, and thus violated the open meetings law, when a legislative committee met on March 9 to agree to the reworked version of the “repair” bill. The Dane County DA, Ismael Ozanne, seeks to block the secretary of state from publishing the law, and ultimately wants the law repealed. Republicans have said sufficient notice was given for the meeting, citing the Senate chief clerk who wrote in a statement (PDF) that “the notice appears to have satisfied the requirements of the rules and statutes.”

The first suit challenging Walker’s bill is scheduled to go before a judge tomorrow.

Additional reporting by Nick Baumann and Siddhartha Mahanta.


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