MADISON, Wis. — The standoff over union rights that rocked Wisconsin and the nation for weeks headed for a swift end Thursday, as Republican lawmakers were set to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state’s public workers and deliver one of the strongest blows to the power of unions in years.
Wisconsin Senate Republicans outmaneuvered their missing Democratic colleagues late Wednesday, using an unexpected but surprisingly simple procedural move to remove all spending measures from Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining legislation and allow them to vote without Democrats present.
The gambit set up a Thursday vote in the Assembly, after which the legislation would need only Walker’s signature, and touched off renewed protests as thousands descended into the Capitol to denounce the GOP move.
“The whole world is watching!” protesters shouted outside the Assembly’s entrance on Thursday as police removed dozens of demonstrators from the Capitol and temporarily delayed the building’s opening. The morning vote in the Assembly also was delayed because the session couldn’t begin until the public had access, and the spokeswoman for Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca said several state representatives were temporarily stopped from getting inside.
Capitol police opened the Assembly doors before noon and the chamber convened a little more than an hour later, but the timing for a vote was uncertain.
Walker’s proposal touched off a national debate over labor rights for public employees and its implementation would be a key victory for Republicans, many of whom have targeted unions amid efforts to slash government spending. Similar bargaining restrictions are making their way through Ohio’s Legislature and several other states are debating measures to curb union rights in smaller doses.
In Wisconsin, the plan led 14 Senate Democrats to flee three weeks ago to Illinois to prevent the chamber from having enough members present to pass the plan. The governor had introduced the measure to plug a $137 million budget shortfall.
The Senate requires a quorum of 20 to take up any measures that spend money. But a special committee of lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly voted late Wednesday afternoon to take all spending measures out of the legislation and the Senate approved it minutes later, 18-1.
Republican Sen. Dale Schultz cast the lone no vote.
“I voted my conscience which I feel reflects the core beliefs of the majority of voters who sent me here to represent them,” Schultz said in a statement.
Until Wednesday’s stunning vote, it appeared the stalemate would persist until Senate Democrats returned to Madison from their self-imposed exile. But in a matter of minutes, it was over.
“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,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller. “Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Miller said there is nothing Democrats can do now to stop the bill: “It’s a done deal.”
The Democrats may now turn renewed energy toward current efforts to recall eight of the Republican state senators. Six Democratic senators also are the target of recall efforts.
Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin said Thursday morning that he and his colleagues were either heading back to Wisconsin from Illinois or would be leaving soon. But Holperin said he didn’t expect any of them to go to the Capitol because the Senate wasn’t scheduled to be in session again until April 5.
“We are going to watch and see how the Assembly unfolds,” Sen. Spencer Coggs said Wednesday night. “There will be fireworks. There will be a lot of people at the Capitol and so it will be hard to get in and out of the Capitol.”
Walker had repeatedly argued that collective bargaining is a budget issue, because his proposed changes would give local governments the flexibility to confront the budget cuts needed to close the state’s $3.6 billion deficit. He has said that without the changes, he may have needed to lay off 1,500 state workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.
Walker said Wednesday night that Democrats had three weeks to debate the bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come back, but refused.
“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,” Walker said in the statement.
The measure forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation unless approved by referendum. 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.
Police and firefighters are exempt.
Wednesday’s drama unfolded less than four hours after Walker met with GOP senators in a closed-door meeting. He emerged from the meeting saying senators were “firm” in their support of the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said earlier that Republicans had been discussing concessions offered by Walker, including allowing public workers to bargain over their salaries without a wage limit. Several GOP senators facing recall efforts had also publicly called for a compromise.
“The people of Wisconsin elected us to come to Madison and do a job,” Fitzgerald said in a statement after the vote. “Just because the Senate Democrats won’t do theirs, doesn’t mean we won’t do ours.”
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, the lone Democrat present on the special committee that put the bill in position to pass the Senate, shouted that the meeting was a violation of the state’s open meetings law.
“The jig is now up,” Barca said. “The fraud on the people of Wisconsin is now clear.”
The Senate’s chief clerk said hours later the meeting was properly held. Fitzgerald said he cleared the Senate’s action with the Legislature’s attorneys, the nonpartisan Fiscal Bureau and bill drafters.
Union leaders weren’t happy with Walker’s previous offer of concessions, and were furious at the Senate’s move to push the measure forward with a quick vote. Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, said after Wednesday’s vote that Republicans exercised a “nuclear option.”
“Scott Walker and the Republicans’ ideological war on the middle class and working families is now indisputable,” Neuenfeldt said.