Wisconsin Democrats on Thursday fled the statehouse in an effort to prevent legislators from reaching a quorum and passing a bill put forth by Gov. Scott Walker (R), which would cripple the collective bargaining rights of public unions.
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The move produced a frantic political drama, as state troopers were reportedly sent out to find the fleeing lawmakers and Walker hinted that the National Guard would be called in to fill the void left by protesting union workers.
One Democratic senator told the Associated Press that he and his fleeing colleagues are currently in Illinois.
Their flight further heightened the drama that has surrounded the Wisconsin statehouse this week. On Wednesday there were an estimated 30,000 peacefully rallying in front of the state capitol building, and on Thursday an estimated 25,000 turned out.
Madison public schools are closed for the second day running, as teachers call in sick and students walk out.
Wisconsin is a stronghold of the labor movement -- the birthplace of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the nation's largest labor unions -- with a long history of successful battles for workers' rights. This is part of the reason the pushback to Walker's bill has been so strong. It's also why, if the bill does pass, the precedent it sets for other conservative governors looking to go after collective bargaining rights is so powerful.
"The attacks on public-sector public bargaining rights are extremely ferocious, and the outcome depends on the magnitude of the fight back," Cornell Professor of Labor Relations Rebecca Givan said. "Other governors are closely watching."
If the bill is passed, Givan said, wages will be frozen and benefits will be slashed. The one flexibility Walker's bill offers for collective bargaining, the ability to bargain over wages, is, in Givan's view, practically meaningless.
"They can bargain over wages but only up to the Consumer Price Index -- that's barely bargaining," she said. "That's just 'we're going to go for scraps.'"
The bill cannot be passed if there is not a single Democrat in the chamber. But even if one is rounded up, and the bill passes the senate, protesters won't stop fighting.
When asked what would happen if the bill goes through, Phil Neuenfeldt, President of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, couldn't say. "All I can do is say what the emotion is, what the feelings are," he said. "There are thousands of good and committed people who are not going to let go of this thing. As far as what's going to happen on Monday, I'm not sure. But I can tell you one thing: there's going to be people reacting to this until it turns around."
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