Public employees across the country are reeling from what economist Robert Reich is calling a coup d’etat. In a surprise move Wednesday night, eighteen Wisconsin Senate Republicans passed a bill restricting public workers’ collective bargaining rights, over the strenuous objections of the lone Democrat present. Today the bill passed the Assembly 53-42 and is heading to Governor Scott Walker for his signature.
The legislation passage follows a chaotic day. Over a thousand protesters amassed at the capital, including many high school students, shortly before police began forcibly removing protesters from the building, even dragging some out.
The Wisconsin State Journal reports that even lawmakers who should have been able to vote on the bill were shut out of the capital and forced to climb in through a window
The fourteen Democratic state senators have been in Illinois for nearly three weeks, where they fled in order to prevent the chamber from having the quorum necessary to pass the original bill. While a quorum is necessary for any budget or spending bill to be passed, it is not necessary for non-budgetary legislation. By uncoupling the two items yesterday, the Republicans were able to bypass the protesting Democrats.
Governor Scott Walker's "budget-repair bill" proposal was introduced to address a $137 million budget shortfall, but Republicans had refused compromise offers from Democrats to make concessions on issues other than collective bargaining. Walker has said that pay cuts are not enough, and that unions must surrender collective bargaining rights in order to give local governments more flexibility in making budget cuts. The bill exempts police and firefighters.
Previous efforts by the Senate Republicans to break the stalemate included fining the missing Democrats $100 a day for every day they stay away, threatening to lay off 1,500 state workers, calling for the arrest of the missing Senators and calling for a recall on their election. Democrats have also called for a recall of the Senate Republicans.
The legislation passed by the Senate bars public workers from collective bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate off inflation and to pay more toward their pensions and health insurance. The total increased contributions will amount to a pay cut of eight percent for the average Wisconsin public worker.
While Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca objected that the meeting was in violation of Wisconsin’s open meetings law, Republicans voted over his objections, and the measure was passed without discussion or debate. The chief clerk of the Senate has said the meeting was properly held. The single vote against the measure came from Republican Senator Dale Schultz.
Unions are calling for a ratcheting up of the effort to recall the Senate Republicans, while other groups are calling for a nationwide general strike. The bulk of the response from Democrats now seems to be directed toward keeping the mobilization high among voters through the 2012 elections.