Thousands of angry protesters flooded the Wisconsin Capitol after Senate Republicans found a way to bypass their absent Democratic colleagues and push through Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights.
The Senate’s 14 Democrats had blocked a vote for three weeks by fleeing the state, ensuring that the chamber wouldn’t have a quorum to take up Gov. Walker’s “budget-repair bill”—a proposal that was introduced to plug a $137 million shortfall and that included the collective bargaining restrictions.
Republicans got around that quorum last week by removing the spending provisions from the bill. A special committee approved the revised collective bargaining bill, and the Senate passed it 18-1, followed a day later by the state Assembly.
The unexpected yet surprisingly simple procedural move ended a stalemate that had threatened to drag on indefinitely.
“In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller said. “Eighteen Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people.”
Gov. Walker, who vowed to sign the legislation quickly, had repeatedly argued that collective bargaining was a budget issue, because his proposed changes would give local governments the flexibility to confront budget cuts needed to close the state’s $3.6 billion deficit. He said that without the changes, he might have to lay off 1,500 state workers and make other cuts.
“I applaud the legislature’s action to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government,” Gov. Walker said in the statement after the March 9 Senate vote.
The new law forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation. It also requires public workers to pay more toward their pensions and double their health-insurance contribution, a combination equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker.
Gov. Walker’s push to curb collective bargaining touched off a national debate over union rights for public employees, and its implementation would be a key victory for Republicans, many of whom have targeted public-employee unions amid efforts to slash government spending. Several other states, including Ohio and Indiana, are considering similar measures.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Wis. GOP Bypasses Democrats, Votes to Strip Bargaining Rights