TOPICS > Politics

Wisconsin Protesters Vow to Fight Vote to Curb Bargaining Rights

March 10, 2011 at 6:18 PM EDT
Wisconsin's state Assembly on Thursday approved limits on collective bargaining for public employee unions following a controversial vote in the state Senate late Wednesday that caught Democratic legislators and union leaders off-guard. Jim Lehrer talks with Frederica Freyberg of Wisconsin Public Television about the next steps.

JIM LEHRER: The battle in Wisconsin over union rights reached a turning point today. After weeks of protests and a legislative stalemate, Republicans claimed victory.

Protesters tried to shove their way into the state capitol building in Madison today. At least 50 were carried out by police, and the building was locked down briefly. The protests were aimed at last night’s surprise action by the state Senate.

Majority Republicans approved a bill to strip most collective bargaining rights from public employees. Democrats had boycotted the Senate for three weeks to prevent a quorum and thus block action. But Republicans finally got around that obstacle with a simple procedural move.

MAN: So ordered, the Senate is adjourned.

JIM LEHRER: Then they exited their chamber to a chorus of jeers. Thousands more waited outside.

MAN: It’s outrageous. It is absolutely outrageous, what they have done.

JIM LEHRER: The news quickly reached the 14 Senate Democrats who had been boycotting.

MARK MILLER (D), Wisconsin state senator: They had an agenda. They knew they were going to go do it, no matter what. And they did it tonight.

JIM LEHRER: But, today, Republican Gov. Scott Walker insisted it’s the Democrats who should be shamed.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R-Wis.): The dirty trick is what those 14 have played for the past three weeks. I mean, the fact of the matter is we live in a democracy. And to participate in the democracy, you have got to be in the arena. And the arena’s not in Rockford. It’s not in Freeport. It’s not in Chicago. It’s in Madison, Wis., in our capitol.

And the fact that three weeks ago, they gave up the right every day they stayed out of the capitol, to have a vote on that measure.

JIM LEHRER: A short time later, the Republican-controlled state Assembly also passed the bill, over the complaints of Democrats.

PETER BARCA (D), Wisconsin state Assembly minority leader: If you think this is OK for us to conduct business in this fashion, you have to be living on a different planet.

JIM LEHRER: The measure now goes to Walker, who says he will sign it as soon as he can, legally.

And to Frederica Freyberg of Wisconsin Public Television.

Frederica, welcome.

Is there — is there any word on when the governor is actually going to sign the bill?

FREDERICA FREYBERG, Wisconsin Public Television: We just asked his office that this afternoon, and he said he’s not signing it tonight, but leaves open the door that he may well sign it tomorrow. He said as soon as possible.

JIM LEHRER: What was this simple procedural move that was used last night by the Senate?

FREDERICA FREYBERG: Well, what the Senate did was they called a conference committee of six members of the Senate and the Assembly. Only one was a Democrat, that being in the Assembly.

And this conference committee then passed this amended version of this bill. And under this conference committee, they were able to pass it, over the objections of that Democrat, and then send it directly to the Senate floor. And they said they were able to do this because they were in special session and had good cause.

Now, the Democrats are crying foul, saying that there wasn’t adequate notification of this meeting, and so they’re saying that it’s a violation of the open meetings law. But the Republicans say that it’s been all squared with all of their legal authorities, and that under this rule of good cause in a special session, they were able to strip the appropriations out of the original bill and then vote this through, and basically then taking the collective bargaining language and passing that last night and then again today in the Assembly.

JIM LEHRER: By taking the appropriations out, that meant that they didn’t need — they did not need a quorum required when it was in that, correct?

FREDERICA FREYBERG: That’s — that’s — that’s what they’re saying.

The Democrats reject that and suggest that they may well, in fact, go to court over that, over of the language in the bill, because the governor had been saying all along that this was a fiscal bill. And so the collective bargaining needed to stay in it. And the Senate originally had said that, because it was a fiscal bill, they need the Democrats to be there for the quorum.

But now, apparently, it has to do with appropriations in the bill, as opposed to anything that had fiscal consequence, because, of course, the collective bargaining language in the bill does have fiscal consequence in part because under this bill employees, state employees, local employees, school employees, are required to pay more for their health-care contributions and for their pension contributions.

JIM LEHRER: But, as you say, this is probably going to be sorted out in somebody’s courtroom; is that correct?

FREDERICA FREYBERG: Well, that’s — that’s what the Democrats and the unions are saying, that this — the next step for this is in the courts.

There has already been a complaint filed on the part of the Assembly Democrats in the district attorney’s office over the open meetings law alleged violation. The attorney general here in Wisconsin says he is looking at that because the Justice Department is in charge of open meetings laws.

And then they also suggest that there could be lawsuits over the language of the bill itself. And then the unions are filing complaints over labor law violations.

JIM LEHRER: So this thing could go on for a while?

FREDERICA FREYBERG: Well, we’re expecting so. And we expect that the demonstration and the protests will keep up, even though this is all over, virtually, legislatively, except for the governor signing it into law.

There are major protests planned for this weekend. They were planned before. We expect there to be great numbers at those protests, as there were last night when this thing happened so quickly in the Senate. Protesters virtually, you know, crashed the capitol. The police ended up kind of standing down.

There were more than 6,000, as many as 7,000 demonstrators, protesters in the capitol last night, which is a larger number than there has been to date.

JIM LEHRER: Have the Democratic senators returned to the state of Wisconsin?

FREDERICA FREYBERG: The Democratic senators are returning, in a trickle, it would appear to us. Some say they’re staying put. Others, we have heard, are returning, some going home to their districts. We don’t know exactly who’s coming back when, but they’re certainly coming back, because it would appear to us that there’s nothing anymore to stay away for.

JIM LEHRER: Just in a word, the atmosphere there tonight is — how would you describe it?

FREDERICA FREYBERG: I think, tonight, at this hour, the atmosphere on the part of the demonstrators is probably dejected.

Earlier, they were very fired up. They were angry. They were still kind of in a state of shock. But I think that it’s likely they will regroup and show great numbers this weekend in and around the capitol building.

JIM LEHRER: But there’s a sense of victory among the Republicans, of course, right?

FREDERICA FREYBERG: No doubt, absolutely.

And they have said that this is what they needed, and they just wanted this to stop, these weeks of stalling and the 70 hours-plus of testimony on the Assembly floor on the part of the Democrats. They just wanted this to move along, because they say what they need are these provisions in this budget repair bill, which is what this is all about, to make their two-year budget work, which has already been introduced and calls for deep cuts in K-12 education and in money to local and municipal governments.

And so, without the provisions of the extra contributions on the part of public employees, the governor says that those local governments and schools cannot manage those cuts without these provisions that were just passed today.

JIM LEHRER: OK, Frederica, thank you very much.