March 11, 2011 in Nation/World

Legislators observe as anti-union bill advances

Wisconsin’s action expected by some to fuel other states’ budget strategies
Ryan Haggerty Chicago Tribune
 

MADISON, Wis. – Stoking Republican efforts to check union power across the country, Wisconsin’s state Assembly sent Gov. Scott Walker a bill he has sought to limit the collective bargaining rights of government workers after another emotional day at the Capitol.

The vote is expected to intensify bitter fights in capitols from Idaho to Indiana, emboldening other budget-cutting Republican governors to press ahead with anti-union legislation.

But it also is likely to galvanize unions and their Democratic allies. Since Republican senators in Wisconsin approved the bill Wednesday night, the state’s Democratic Party took in more than $300,000.

Opponents of the bill packed the balconies in the Assembly and began jeering as soon as representatives started voting, making it almost impossible to hear the result. Boos and chants of “Shame!” broke out as the bill passed, 53-42 with one abstention, culminating weeks of heated debate that has brought tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol and sent Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state to try to prevent the bill’s passage.

Protester Thomas Bird, a University of Wisconsin graduate student, predicted Republicans would pay a price for their actions. “The next time they face election, they are done!” he yelled after the vote.

“This was our only option to move forward and avoid layoffs,” said Rep. Scott Suder, the Assembly majority leader. “While some don’t like the outcome and are going to continue to protest, this is the right thing to do to make sure that Wisconsin’s fiscal house is in order.”

As the bill advanced in Wisconsin, a crowd of more than 7,000 gathered outside the statehouse in Indiana to protest anti-union legislation there. Union-opposed bills have advanced in Ohio and Idaho and are under consideration in Kansas, Tennessee and other states, though national polls show that a solid majority of Americans oppose efforts to limit bargaining rights.

“We’re now up to 22 states,” said Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois. “It’s almost an epidemic.”

Legislation introduced in Texas this week takes aim at a tactic used by Indiana and Wisconsin Democrats to stall anti-union legislation: The lawmakers fled to Illinois to deny Republicans a quorum. The Texas proposal would keep lawmakers who flee the state from being counted toward a quorum.

Opponents of the Wisconsin legislation are taking their fight to the courts, contending that Republicans violated the state’s open meetings act in the vote, a charge that the Republican dispute. Opponents have launched recall campaigns against the bill’s supporters.

Richard Hurd, a Cornell University professor of labor and industrial relations, said Republicans in other states contemplating similar measures will likely watch the recall campaigns closely.

“It may energize the right, and it may give them the confidence to be more aggressive, but those in the Republican Party who are a little more cautious may want to wait and see how it plays out,” he said.

In the Wisconsin battle, both parties resorted to legislative maneuvers to get under each other’s skin. Republicans passed rules that would take away parking spots from the missing senators and restrict access to copy machines by their staff. Assembly Democrats held 130 hours of around-the-clock “listening sessions” to keep the Capitol open to protesters.

In Washington, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the Wisconsin legislation was mobilizing public and private sector unions.

“Thank you, Scott Walker,” Trumka said at the National Press Club. “We should have invited him here today to receive the Mobilizer of the Year award!”

Others predicted the opposite effect. Chris Edwards, a Cato Institute economist, predicted that Wisconsin will “kick-start a movement toward public sector union reform.”

The Wisconsin measure had been stalled since Feb. 17, when all 14 Democrat senators fled the state. But on Wednesday, Republicans removed financial provisions from the bill, which meant it did not require as many senators present for a vote.

The bill that would eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public unions does not apply to police and firefighter unions.

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