Bypassing Senate Democrats who fled the state, Republican senators in Wisconsin managed to pass legislation Wednesday to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
In mid-February, 14 Democratic state senators left Wisconsin to avoid having to vote on the budget repair bill. There are 19 Republican senators, but the Senate needs a minimum of 20 members to be present to debate and vote on any bills that spend money.
While the 14 Democratic senators remained in Illinois, Republicans split the proposal to limit public employees' collective bargaining rights from the budget repair bill and passed the separate piece of legislation shortly afterward.
"The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said in a statement. "In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform the government. The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs."
One Republican, Sen. Dale Schultz, voted against the measure.
The new stand-alone bill to curb collective bargaining rights still needs to be passed by the Wisconsin Assembly before it can be signed into law by Gov. Walker.
"I think it's akin to political hara-kiri," Democratic state Sen. Bob Jauch told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I think it's political suicide."
Under Wisconsin law, any elected official who has served at least one year of their current term can be recalled from office. Eight Republican senators are currently eligible to be recalled. Gov. Walker, who was inaugurated last January, will not be eligible for a recall until 2012.
"This is on the Republicans' heads right now," state Sen. Chris Larson (D) said. "If they decide to kill the middle class, it's on them."
"Everyone who is party to this travesty is writing their political obituary," he added.
"In 30 minutes, 18 state Senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin," Democratic Minority Leader Mark Miller said. "Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten."
"Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people," the state senator continued. "Tomorrow we will join the people of Wisconsin in taking back their government.”
Thousands of protesters rushed to the state Capitol on Wednesday night as word spread of the hastily called votes that sent Gov. Scott Walker's controversial bill limiting collective bargaining rights for public workers speeding through the Legislature.
Shortly after 8 p.m., hundreds of protesters gathered outside the locked King Street entrance to the Capitol, chanting "Break down the door!" and "General strike!"
Moments later, police ceded control of the State Street doors and allowed the crowd to surge inside. The area outside the Assembly, which is scheduled to take the bill up at 11 a.m. Thursday, was jammed with protesters who chanted, "We're not leaving. Not this time."
Some said they planned to spend the night in the Capitol. Last week, a Dane County Circuit Court judge ordered dozens of protesters who had been occupying the Capitol for more than two weeks to leave.
It's not clear why police abandoned efforts to limit access to the Capitol Wednesday night, but Department of Administration spokesman Tim Donovan said "windows have been broken" to get in. He said he could not immediately provide specifics.
Protesters jammed three floors of the Capitol and packed the bridges that connect the four wings of the Capitol, prompting alarm by police and others that those parts of the building might collapse.
Some union leaders interviewed Wednesday night at the Madison Labor Temple indicated that strikes — which are illegal in Wisconsin for public-employee unions — are possible.
"Senate Republicans have exercised the nuclear option to ram through their bill attacking Wisconsin's working families in the dark of night," said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO. "Tonight's events have demonstrated they will do or say anything to pass their extreme agenda that attacks Wisconsin's working families."
The budget-repair bill had been stalled in the Senate since the body's 14 Democrats fled Wisconsin Feb. 17 in a desperate gambit to slow or stop passage of the measure, which affects about 175,000 public employees.
Representatives of the union that represents blue-collar, technical and safety officers at UW-Madison said the possibility of a general strike has been discussed. "Anything is possible," said Local 171 steward Carl Aniel.
Aniel said only locals can call a strike, and it would be up to each one to do so individually.
"It's clear that Walker is not interested in any sort of negotiations. He's leaving the working class no other options," Aniel said.
Anne Habel, a steward with AFSCME Local 171, said Wednesday's action will further inflame the unions, which have staged daily protests since Walker introduced his budget repair bill in mid-February. "Every time something happens, people become more militant," Habel said."
Ted Lewis, a union representative for Rock Valley Education Professionals, led protesters in a cheer referring to the effort to recall the governor, in office for just two tumultuous months.
"Scott, you don't remember me," Lewis chanted, "but I can recall you."