Thousands of protesters pushed past police and stormed into the Madison Capitol Wednesday night after state Senate Republicans voted 18 to 1 to strip unionized public employees of their rights to collective bargaining. Earlier in the afternoon, the GOP used an acrobatic parliamentary measure to push a vote through the Republican-dominated Senate, even though all 14 Democratic members remained out of state in an effort to block a vote on the original version of the bill, which required a quorum to go forward. The absent Democrats were marked down as "not present."
After the vote, over protests and accusations from Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca that the impromptu meeting was unlawful, witnesses to the vote started to chant in dismay, with one spectator crying out, "What have you done?"
"In thirty minutes, eighteen State Senators undid fifty years of civil rights in Wisconsin," Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller said in a press release immediately following the vote. "Tomorrow we will join the people of Wisconsin in taking back their government."
Democrats claim they have been the victims of an ambush and have already lodged complaints with the state's Republican Attorney General alleging that the vote was illegal and violated not only Senate rules but also the state's open meeting laws.
In a raucous and contentious legislative session Wednesday, the Wisconsin Republican leadership claimed that by separating out the collective bargaining ban from other economic rollbacks included in Gov. Scott Walker's controversial budget austerity plan, the larger quorum denied by the Democratic boycott was no longer necessary, as that only applied to legislation dealing with the budget itself. The hastily passed measure now moves to the Republican-dominated Assembly, where it is expected to pass and be singed by into law. Walker issued a statement saying, "I applaud the legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government."
Some union sources speculated that the vote was rushed Wednesday night by the GOP leadership out of fear that as time went by there would be sufficient Republican defections to defeat the bill in an open vote. Myriad polls revealed wide public support for maintaining union bargaining rights and plummeting popularity for Walker as the legislative stalemate in wore on.
Apart from the Capitol protests, which are expected to swell Thursday, student activists are calling for a walkout, and some militant labor factions are calling for a general strike of Wisconsin union workers. When the Senate minority leader was asked by MSNBC if it wasn't time for the 175,000 state workers to stage a general strike, he said he couldn't rule out that action but emphasized that it was time to "change faces" in the Senate -- implying an increased effort on behalf the drive to recall eight Republican state senators who backed the bill.
Democrats and union activists contend that the Wednesday night move is proof positive of arguments they have made that Walker's real intention in his "budget repair" bill was, in fact, to break the backs of the powerful public sector unions who have been a major funding source for Democrats.
Walker has said all along that he was acting out of economic common sense and that curtailing unions rights was about establishing a healthier fiscal situation for the state. But in separating out the economic issues Wednesday night to pass only the part of the package that snatches back collective bargaining rights, Republicans have given weight to the argument that the unions themselves, and not the budget bottom line, were always the governor's real target.
State Sen. Tim Carpenter, one of the Wisconsin 14, called the vote, Walker's "Pearl Harbor sneak attack on the unions."
Coming at a moment when the Wisconsin crisis had seemed to be heading to some sort of compromise and conclusion, the unexpected move to fast-track the most controversial part of the bill without Democrats present is sure to reshape the political battlefield in the state.
Whatever happens next, the Republican vote on Wednesday guarantees that the political battle over unions in the Badger state will be more prolonged and acrimonious than either side could have imagined when it began.