Demonstrators occupying the Wisconsin capitol in support of state workers for almost two weeks defied a deadline to leave and authorities backed down, rather than make arrests.
The victory in Madison yesterday came after marchers, estimated by police at more than 70,000, paraded through the city’s downtown Feb. 26 in opposition to Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to curb collective bargaining for government employees.
Madison is the focus of protests against Republican-led efforts in Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey to cut benefits and bargaining power for public employees. Democrats in Wisconsin’s Senate blocked Walker’s measure last week by fleeing to Illinois, to prevent the chamber from having a quorum.
“People are realizing that if they want their voice heard, they’ve got to yell loud,” said Maya Madden, a demonstrator in the Capitol yesterday. Madden, 66, who owns an art gallery and tea shop in Long Rock, Wisconsin, said she was prepared to be arrested for refusing to leave.
Arrests have been “next to none” since protesters began their occupation, Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs told reporters yesterday. Tubbs said he decided not to have officers remove anyone because the demonstrators have been “outstanding” in maintaining peaceful opposition.
“I think this is the best way of dealing with this issue,” Tubbs said of the low-key approach by police.
The crowd was told to leave so the building could be cleaned. When they remained, crews swept and mopped around them.
State Representative Kelda Helen Roys, a Democrat from Madison, stood alongside protesters as the 4 p.m. deadline, set by the Capitol police on Feb. 25, came and went.
“I consider it part of my job to listen to the citizens and ensure their voices are heard,” she said. “This is a systematic attempt by the Republicans and Governor Walker to curtail worker rights and trample on our democracy.”
The measure, which increases the amount government employees except police and firefighters must pay toward their health care premiums and pension contributions, aims to close a projected $137 million deficit for the current fiscal year and a $3.6 billion gap in the next biennium, Walker has said.
“If we do not get these changes and the Senate Democrats don’t come back, we’re going to be forced to make up the savings in layoffs and that to me is just unacceptable,” Walker said yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Unions have agreed to accept the increased costs for the members if Walker drops the limits on collective bargaining, Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller of Monona, one of the Democrats who left the state, said last week by telephone from an Illinois location he wouldn’t disclose.
The bill passed the Republican-controlled Assembly just after 1 a.m. on Feb. 25 after a marathon session lasting more than 60 hours. In the Senate, 14 Democrats left the state last week in order to delay a vote by the Republican-controlled body.
Not all the protesters stayed put yesterday. Law enforcement blocked entry to the second and third floors as signs, pillows and blankets were left behind, relegating protesters to the ground and first floors. They drummed, sang “Solidarity Forever” to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and chanted “Hell no, we won’t go!” and “Who’s house? Our house!”
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