MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) — Thousands of pro-union protesters gathered outside the Wisconsin Capitol Saturday for a fifth day of demonstrations against a budget bill that would strip public employees of most of their bargaining rights, in a nationally watched challenge to newly empowered Republicans intent on slashing government spending.
The bill has been pushed by the Midwester state's new Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Hundreds of his supporters chanting "Pass the bill" gathered on the east side of the Capitol in the first major counter-protest, but they were surrounded and outnumbered by thousands of pro-labor protesters shouting. "Kill the bill."
The pro-labor protesters have already been at the Capitol for four days. Walker's supporters showed up Saturday with signs reading, "I was at work yesterday. Where were you?" and "Sorry, we're late Scott. We work for a living."
The conservative tea party movement urged its supporters to stage the counter-protest in Madison to support Walker's proposal to ease the Midwestern state's budget woes by cutting many government workers' pay, pension and health care benefits and bargaining rights.
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney predicted crowds could swell to as many as 70,000 people on Saturday and said his department planned to add 60 deputies to the 100 who patrolled during the week.
Across the country, from Nevada to Florida, Republican governors such as Walker are seeking to ease their state's recession-deepened budget shortfalls and bolster the business climate by reducing the power of public employee unions. They blame unions in part for the state budget crisis by negotiating flush benefit packages for public workers.
About 200 protesters spent the night at the Capitol, and on Saturday morning, many walked around wearing signs declaring the protest peaceful. Several said they were concerned that the four days of violence-free protests would be disrupted Saturday when busloads of tea party activists arrived.
The pro-union protesters have been bolstered by state Senate Democrats who fled Wisconsin to delay action on Walker's proposal and threatened to stay in hiding for weeks if calls for negotiation go unheeded. One of those Democrats said Saturday the group had no plans to return over the weekend although they would meet outside the state later in the day.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Democrats want Walker to seriously consider a deal under which public employees would agree to pay more for benefits as long as they kept their rights to collectively bargain. The bill calls for the elimination of collective bargaining except over wage increases not greater than the Consumer Price Index.
Walker has said he would not accept that deal. A Walker spokesman said the governor was spending time with his family Saturday, but he didn't say where.
Wisconsin Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Saturday the bill was not negotiable and it would pass as is. He called on the Democrats to return to take up the bill and said the Senate could be ready to meet in three hours.
The confrontation comes as organized labor, reeling from a steady loss of private sector members, looks to hold onto the 7.6 million public sector employees who now account for the majority of workers on union rolls,
Defeating the Wisconsin bill and others like it is crucial for public-sector unions, an important part of the Democratic Party base. President Barack Obama and other Democrats will need the campaign donations and strong support of unions in the 2012 elections — especially in key swing states like Wisconsin — to counter a huge influx of corporate funds allowed under a Supreme Court decision last year.
Nearly every major union leader — both public and private sector — has united behind an ambitious $30 million plan to stop anti-labor measures in Wisconsin and 10 other states. A proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights drew throngs of protesters this week at the Ohio Capitol in Columbus. Hundreds more have demonstrated in Tennessee and Indiana.
Madison, home to the famously liberal University of Wisconsin, is a birthplace of the progressive movement and no stranger to political unrest. Madison has seen activists take to the streets to protest the Vietnam war, support civil rights and oppose cuts in social services. Some say this week's rallies are unmatched in their sustained, impassioned energy.
"That's jaw-dropping. This is uncharted," said Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political scientist and former state lawmaker.
Democrats who stayed in Madison on Friday scored their own victory, forcing the state Assembly to adjourn until at least Tuesday without taking a vote on Walker's bill. Republicans, however, have more than enough votes to pass the measure once the Legislature can convene.
Paul Soglin, a former Madison mayor who has been at the Capitol all week and spent at least one night on the floor, didn't seem concerned about clashes with the opposition, saying he's been struck by protesters' positive enthusiasm.
"A joy, yes, in the way people greet one another, the way they're energized by one another," said Soglin, who described himself as a veteran of more than 100 protests since the 1960s and is running for mayor again. "They're excited that even though there's a grim prospect of the bill being adopted, that in the long run they're building something that can be strong for the working class."
Walker insists the concessions he is seeking from public workers — including higher health insurance and pension contributions — are necessary to deal with the state's projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs. Eliminating most collective bargaining rights is necessary in order to give state and local governments and schools flexibility to deal with upcoming cuts in state aid, Walker said.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin weighed with a Friday night posting on her Facebook page that urged "union brothers and sisters" not to ask taxpayers to support "unsustainable benefits packages."
The throngs of protesters — including teachers, prison guards and many students — have been largely peaceful. Police reported just nine citations for minor offenses as of Friday. Schools throughout the state have closed this week after teachers called in sick, including in the state's largest district, in Milwaukee.
Associated Press writers Dinesh Ramde, Scott Bauer, Todd Richmond and Jason Smathers contributed to this report.
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