Neither Side Budging in Wisconsin Union Fight
No resolution appeared imminent Monday to the stalemate over union rights in Wisconsin, leaving Senate Republicans resigned to forge ahead with less-controversial business such as tax breaks for dairy farmers and commending the Green Bay Packers on winning the Super Bowl.
As the standoff entered its second week, none of the major players offered any signs of backing down in a high-stakes game of political chicken that has riveted the nation and led to ongoing public protests that drew a high of 68,000 people on Saturday. Thousands more braved cold winds and temperatures in the 20s to march again on Monday, waving signs that said "Stop the attack on Wisconsin families" and "solidarity."
The 14 Senate Democrats who skipped town Thursday to indefinitely delay a vote on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's bill stripping most collective bargaining rights from nearly all public employees remained missing in action for a fifth day.
"You have shut down the people's government, and that is not acceptable," Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said during a brief meeting Monday setting the agenda for Tuesday's Senate session.
Two of the missing Democrats participated by phone from an undisclosed location.
"You're not in negotiations. There is no negotiation," Fitzgerald said, cutting off one of the Democrats on the phone. "You need to get back to the floor of the Senate and offer any ideas you may have on final passage. That's where we're at. There is no negotiation."
Both the Senate and Assembly planned to be in session on Tuesday to take up the bill, but at least one of the missing Democrats needed to show up for a vote to be taken in the Senate. Assembly Democrats planned to offer dozens of amendments that could push a vote into Wednesday or later.
Although Tuesday's list of items, including the resolution honoring the Packers, is largely bipartisan, Fitzgerald hinted that he might try to push some more controversial ones later, even if the Democrats aren't back. Among the possibilities is a vote on the question of whether voters should be required to show identification at the polls.
The Democratic senators taking part in the scheduling meeting urged Republicans to accept the offer made by the unions under which they would accept paying more for benefits as Walker wants but still retain their collective bargaining rights.
Another compromise offered by Republican Sen. Dale Schultz would remove collective bargaining rights just for two years
"It's time for all of us to move forward," said Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay over the phone to the Republicans.
Walker has rejected both offers, saying local governments and school districts can't be hamstrung by the often lengthy collective bargaining process and need to have more flexibility to deal with up to $1 billion in cuts he will propose in his budget next week and into the future.
"It will never get to me because other than that one state senator, all the rest of the Republicans are firmly behind our proposal," Walker said in an MSNBC interview on Monday, calling it an unacceptable short-term fix.
The emergency plan he wants the Legislature to pass would address this year's $137 million shortfall and start dealing with the $3.6 billion hole expected by mid-2013. The benefits concessions would amount to $30 million this year, but the largest savings Walker proposed comes from refinancing debt to save $165 million.
That portion must be done by Friday for bonds to be refinanced in time to realize the savings by June 30, the end of this fiscal year.
Walker said not passing the bill by Friday would make even deeper cuts necessary and possibly result in laying off 1,500 workers over the next four months.
Thousands of those affected and their supporters marched on the Capitol for a seventh straight day. Hundreds of them have been sleeping in the rotunda every night and several districts have had to close after so many teachers called in sick. The Madison School District was closed Wednesday through Monday but was expected to reopen Tuesday.
Districts in central Wisconsin were also closed Monday, but that was because of 10 to 12 inches of snow. Milwaukee schools were shut down for a pre-scheduled midsemester break. Those closures, on top of Monday being a previously scheduled furlough day for state workers, resulted in another large crowd Monday but an official estimate was not yet released.
At noon, guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine took to a stage on the Capitol steps to fire up the crowd. He said he flew in from California to lend his voice to the protest.
"The future of workers' rights will be decided in Madison, Wisconsin," he said. "You're making history here."
He joked that he could hardly play the guitar because his fingers were numb. He sang a song with the refrain, "For the union men and women standing up and standing strong!" Each time he repeated that lyric, the crowd roared.
Walker's plan would allow unions representing most public employees to negotiate only for wage increases, not benefits or working conditions. Any wage increase above the Consumer Price Index would have to be approved in a referendum. Unions would face a vote of membership every year to stay formed, and workers could opt out of paying dues.
The plan would also require many public employees to cut their take home pay by about 8 percent by contributing more of their salaries toward their health insurance and retirement benefits, concessions the unions have said they're willing to accept.
But Walker and Republicans are showing no willingness to budge while the Senate Democrats say they are prepared to stay away for weeks if that's what it will take.