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Senate approves bill to strip public employees of collective bargaining

March 10, 2011


 Wisconsin Senate GOP bypass Democrats to cut union rights


Wisconsin Senate Republicans used a surprise legislative maneuver to pass a bill that would strip collective-bargaining rights from most public-sector workers — a move accomplished without the 14 Democratic senators who had fled the state to stall the measure.

Republicans voted 18-1 Wednesday night to pass nonfiscal provisions of the budget-repair bill — including those that would eliminate or severely limit collective-bargaining rights for most public employees.

Republicans control the Senate but had been blocked from voting on the issue after Democrats left the state Feb. 17 to prevent a quorum. Instead, Republicans used a procedural maneuver to force the collective-bargaining measure through: They removed elements of Gov. Scott Walker’s bill that technically were related to appropriating funds, thus removing a requirement that 20 senators be present for a vote.

In the end, the Senate’s 19 Republicans approved the measure without any debate on the floor or a single Democrat in the room.

Walker issued a statement praising the action: “The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused.”

The fight over the legislation has drawn national attention, with unions calling it an attack on all organized labor and some GOP lawmakers and governors calling it a necessary step to control state spending.

“You are cowards!” spectators in the Senate gallery screamed as lawmakers voted. Within hours, a crowd of a few hundred protesters had grown to thousands outside the state Capitol in Madison.

“The whole world is watching!” they shouted as they pressed up against the heavily guarded entrance to the Senate chamber.

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the state AFL-CIO, said after the vote that Republicans exercised a “nuclear option.”

“Scott Walker and the Republicans’ ideological war on the middle class and working families is now indisputable,” he said.

Gov. Scott Walker The bill would limit collective bargaining to matters of wages only and would limit raises to the Consumer Price Index unless the public approves higher raises in a referendum. Most unions would be required to hold votes annually to determine whether most workers still wish to be members. And the state’s collection of union dues from paychecks would end.

Police and firefighters are exempt.

The Republican-controlled state Assembly, which already had passed the bill before the changes, will vote on the amended measure Thursday.

Republicans said they were able to push through the bill by removing a few provisions, including a $165 million bond restructuring and the no-bid sale of 37 state power plants. But the bill still includes several monetary changes, including charging public workers more for health care and pensions, which would save the state $330 million through mid-2013.

While Republicans did not explain how those provisions could remain in the bill without a quorum, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the move was deemed acceptable by three widely respected nonpartisan state agencies.

Senate Republicans assembled a conference committee Wednesday to address the changes in the bill and then moved quickly to a vote. Republican Sen. Dale Schultz cast the lone dissenting vote.

Schultz said he had spent four weeks working for compromise.

“Ultimately, I voted my conscience, which I feel reflects the core beliefs of the majority of voters who sent me here to represent them,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Donna Seidel, assistant minority leader in the Assembly, said the move caught Democrats “totally and completely off guard.”

Democrats condemned the move as an attack on working families, a violation of the state’s open-meetings law (24 hours’ notice generally is required, and a minimum of two hours, for meetings) and a virtual firebomb in a state already politically polarized and consumed with recall efforts, large-scale protests and fury from public workers.

More than a dozen senators from both parties have been singled out for recall efforts, chosen in part because of state rules that require selected lawmakers to have been in office for at least a year and call for thousands of voters’ signatures to be gathered in a matter of 60 days — a process that was under way with canvassing all last weekend.

“In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin,” said Mark Miller, leader of the Senate Democrats who had fled to Illinois to block such a vote from occurring. “Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten.”

At the brief and contentious conference session where Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca was the only Democrat present, he told Fitzgerald, “Mr. Chairman, this is a violation of law! This is not just a rule — this is the law.”

Seidel said Democrats intend to take the fight to the courts.

Walker has said the scaling back of public-sector union power is a necessary tool to help local governments and schools deal with impending budget cuts intended to plug a $3.6 billion budget deficit over two years. In his initial budget presentation last week, Walker laid out more than $1 billion in proposed cuts in state aid to schools, universities, municipalities and counties.

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