Protestors gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday, February 15 to protest measure in Gov. Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. Proponents say the measures are necessary to prevent government employee layoffs and cuts to BadgerCare. Others believe the measures are an assault on 50 years of collective bargaining tradition in Wisconsin.
In a continued expression of solidarity and support for state workers’ rights, nearly 13,000 protesters crowded Capitol Square and spilled onto State Street in the second day of rallying in opposition to the proposed budget repair bill.
University of Wisconsin students, teaching assistants and staff joined union labor representatives from around the state as a part of the “Hands Off Our Teachers” rally while the Joint Finance Committee heard public testimony on Gov. Scott Walker’s bill.
AFSCME International President Gerald McEntee addressed the expansive crowd, saying the proposal, which would eliminate the majority of collective bargaining for union employees, marks the exploitation of the public service workers who provide essential services to the city and university.
“The bill would destroy our dignity,” he said. “It’s an attack on the freedoms of every Wisconsin citizen and would deny us our God-given rights.”
Labor and community representatives called for the assurance of a safe working environment, livable wages and affordable health care provided by collective bargaining measures.
Rev. Curt Anderson, a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice, characterized Walker’s bill as a vehicle to weaken the working class instead of improving the state’s $137 million budget shortfall.
“Walker’s bill is no more about the state budget than the war in Iraq is about those imaginary weapons of mass destruction,” Anderson said.
During Anderson’s address, four representatives raised a banner reading “solidarity” from a fourth floor Capitol office. The crowd greeted the gesture with renewed shouts of “recall Walker” from the crowd.
Teaching Assistants’ Association member Danny Spitzberg said Walker’s bill does nothing to repair the state’s budget deficit but is rather only a “power grab” from the unions.
He said the victimization of public institutions under the bill have mobilized people sympathetic to the values of unions and a diverse distribution of union representation to join the movement.
UW senior Joy Rifkin said the turnout at Tuesday’s events demonstrated students and union supporters from around the state would not allow the bill to pass without exhausting all efforts to voice their opposition, and the fight would not end if the bill was approved by the Legislature.
“Students stand to lose connections with professors, research opportunities and the value of a Wisconsin degree if this bill goes through,” she said. “It’s going to make a huge difference to have the student voice behind this movement.
After nearly 13,000 Wisconsinites swamped the state Capitol building, Madison downtown streets were sealed off to the public, and Metro bus schedules were forced to reroute around the protesters.
Though the air of uncertainty for the future of Wisconsin unions made for an agitated crowd, Capitol Police spokesperson Carla Vigue said no incidents were reported and no arrests were made.
Though Vigue would not comment on whether Capitol security had been increased due to the high volume of protesters, she said the events so far have remained safe and successful from a security standpoint.
Madison Police Department Sergeant Paul Jacobson said the streets surrounding the Capitol were closed because of safety concerns caused by the number of people in the area.
Other than pedestrian traffic, Jacobson said there were no incidents warranting police interference.
“So far, the rallies have been very peaceful, and the people have been very orderly trying to get to their representatives and the Capitol,” Jacobson said. “We’ve had no other problems other than pedestrian traffic.”
The traffic also forced Metro buses to defer from their normal routes surrounding the square.
The rally was in the center of most of Metro’s routes, forcing officials to fall back on the routes used during Farmers’ Markets. For about 30 minutes, buses had to alter off their backup route because some side streets were blocked.
Metro buses will remain on an altered route throughout Wednesday and may not resume normal routes until Monday, Rusch said.
The Madison School District will be closed to all students Wednesday because of an excess of teacher sick day absences, a statement from the school district said.