Wisconsin Dems Hide in 'Hard ... to Find' Place; Governor Rips 'Theatrics'

Governor calls MIA lawmakers "disrespectful."

February 16, 2011, 12:49 PM

Feb. 17, 2011 -- With Wisconsin Senate minority leader saying Democrats are hiding "in a place that is hard for them to find" in order to postpone a vote on slashing union rights, Wisconsin's Republican governor is demanding Democrats end their "theatrics" and "show up for work."

"Show up!" Gov. Scott Walker, a Tea Party-backed Republican, told the absent Democrats at a news conference this evening. "Debate the bill! Offer amendments. Have a healthy debate. But, you don't have that debate if you hang out down in Rockford or Dubuque."

The Wisconsin Senate's 14 Democrats did not report to work today for a possible vote that threatened to curb unions and public worker pensions. Without their votes, the 33-member chamber with a 19-14 Republican majority was left one person short of the 20 members required for the Senate to open business.

It was believed the Democrats had fled Wisconsin for a neighboring state, a move Walker called "disrespectful."

Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, a Democrat, told ABC News that "it's the governor who has been disrespectful of the workers to try and pass this legislation in ... basically six days.

"That is not a Democratic way to operate at all," he said. "This kind of major legislation needs to have full consideration and not be something that is railroaded through the legislature just because you have a majority."

His colleague, Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, would only say that all 14 legislators were together and in "a very cold place."

Erpenbach told ABC News that Walker left them "no option" and that the group left around 9 a.m. today.

"I went home, kissed my wife and kids and got in my car, drove off," he said.

His comments came after Walker released a written statement blasting the Democrats for hightailing out of the capital.

"Their actions by leaving the state and hiding from voting are disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of public employees who showed up to work today and the millions of taxpayers they represent," Walker said.

Erpenbach accused Walker of "throwing a bomb out there and waiting to see what happens."

"We won't come back until the governor agrees to sit down and meet with people who don't see eye-to-eye with him and discuss better ways of helping the people of Wisconsin," Erpenbach said.

"Senate Democrats took action today to allow time for the involved parties to work together to balance the budget," Miller said in a written statement after his ABC News interview. "We believe, out of respect for our public institutions, the people of Wisconsin and our long tradition of working together, our fiscal challenges can be met without taking away worker's rights."

But Walker suggested this evening that Democrats have had a whole campaign season to consider his positions on union rights and would have further opportunity to debate the matter in the state senate if they return.

"We introduced a measure, last week -- a measure that I ran on during the campaign, a measure I talked about in November in the transition, a measure I talked about in December when we fought off the employee contracts, an idea I talked about in the inauguration, an idea I talked about in the State of the State," Walker told reporters. "If anyone doesn't know what's coming, they've been asleep for the past two years.

"We certainly [are] looking at all legal options out there," Walker said. "But I have faith, after they do their stunt for a day or two, more about theatrics than anything else, that they'll come back and realize, again, they're elected to do a job."

Police were sent to look for the wayward lawmakers, the Associated Press reported.

Miller denied they had been approached by police.

"We were not arrested, just recalled by the folks sent out to locate us," he told ABC News. "This is not the sort of thing you are arrested for."

Controversial Bill Would Curb Collective Bargaining Rights

Thousands of teachers and other public workers swarmed the capital today to protest the proposed cuts. They flooded the Capitol grounds and covered every inch of the Capitol floor space. Many chanted, "Kill the bill."

Some held signs about union busting. One protester compared the Republican governor to deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.

"It's pure and simple union busting," retired teacher Maureen Kind told ABC News.

A huge cheer went up when firefighters marched in with signs saying, "We Support Labor and an American Flag."

"Democrats believe it is wrong to strip people of their right to have a say in the conditions of their employment and to use state law to bust unions," Miller said in an earlier statement released on behalf of the Senate Democrats. "We urge Gov. Walker and the Republicans to listen to the people of Wisconsin, talk to the workers and reach an agreement that helps balance the budget while respecting their rights."

Walker tweeted: "This is all about balancing the budget. Wisconsin needs leadership."

Describing the crowd of protesters that surged around Gov. Walker's office Wednesday, Scott Favour, a Madison, Wis., police officer, said, "There are thousands of people here; 20,000 at least.

"It's all ages, all kinds of public employees, firefighters in full turn-out gear," Favour said. "There's a lot of solidarity here."

Favour, himself a protester, took the day off to express his opposition to the governor's so-called budget repair bill, which would close a state shortfall of about $3.6 billion, in part, by asking public employees to pay a greater share of their pension and health insurance costs.

The bill also would curb collective bargaining rights and make it tougher for public employee unions to operate.

Alexandra Nieves, 35, another police officer, said the bill "is upsetting." The governor's take-back on pensions and health insurance was something she never anticipated when she joined the force three years ago. Still, it's his proposal to curb collective bargaining that disturbed her the most.

"What have we fought for all these years?" she asked angrily. "It's like telling a woman you can't vote, that you should take off your shoes and go back to the kitchen."

The governor, asked by ABC News Wednesday if he was surprised by the size of the turnout, said, "No, not at all. When you do something bold, you'll get a reaction."

And how.

The governor telegraphed his intentions even before he assumed office. In a speech in December, he declared, "We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots."

His bill now asks state workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to pension costs (that percentage, he said, is below the national average) and to pay 12.6 percent of health insurance costs (about half the national average, he says). Those changes together would help produce $30 million in savings in the last quarter of the current fiscal year.

Protesters who spoke with ABC News Wednesday professed to having little or no problem with those changes.

"Public employees are willing to make sacrifices," Favour said. "I made $70,000 in salary alone last year, with benefits on top of that. Madison's police are among the highest paid in the state.

"I certainly don't want to make less money," he added. "But my wife, who's also an officer, and I have discussed it, and we understand it's a time for shared sacrifice. We expect our incomes will stay level or retreat. We're prepared for that."

What he and other protesters said they weren't prepared for were sweeping changes in the governor's proposal that would reduce state workers' right to engage in collective bargaining.

Governor Within His Authority

Collective bargaining by most public employees would be limited to wages. Other changes would require collective bargaining units to take an annual vote to maintain certification as a union.

Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues, and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. Local law enforcement and firefighters would be exempt from these changes.

Richard Hurd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University, said Walker is acting well within his authority as governor.

No federal law requires states to offer collective bargaining to public employees. Each state can determine what, if any, those rights will be.

Hurd, nonetheless, called the situation in Wisconsin "dramatic" and "unusual" in light of the fact that Wisconsin has such a long history of collective bargaining: In 1963, it was one of the first states to offer it to public employees.

Other cash-strapped states, Hurd noted, are attempting similar restrictions. Legislation limiting the power of public unions is under discussion in Maine, Alabama, Ohio, Arizona, Missouri and several other states.

John Kasich, the new Republican governor of Ohio, is proposing to deny 14,000 state child care and home care workers the right to unionize. Democratic governors including Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York are attempting their own public union changes.

Though Walker's bill explicitly gives police and fire unions the right to continue to engage in collective bargaining, members of both see it as a ploy to buy their acquiescence.

Favour didn't put much stock in the bill's exemption.

"There's nothing to say the legislature can't pass that law and then un-exempt us," he said. "We certainly believe we're next. This exemption is just a bribe to get us to go along. Cops can't be bribed."

Right-to-Work State?

"He's trying to make our state a right-to-work state," said Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin. "Even though it's 10 below outside, we're beginning to feel like we're down South."

He referred to the fact that most right-to-work states are in the South and West.

"All thrown away with one swoop of the pen," he said of labor's bargaining rights.

In Wisconsin and other states, benefits changes are creating another kind of have and have-not dichotomy: Older union members, who negotiated their packages in happier economic times, now are well off. Younger members and new hires, by contrast, have to settle for packages more pinched, less generous.

Madison's police union marchers, said Favour, were, for the most part, younger people who've been on the force only a few years. Their reduced benefits, he said, are "a fundamental change to what they'd anticipated in terms of compensation."

Ordinarily, said Cornell's Hurd, that disparity would lead to dissention in the ranks between young and old -- a fracturing of solidarity. Not so now, however.

"Nothing so unifies labor as this kind of challenge to what they see as a fundamental right," Hurd said.

Internal resentments between veterans and new hires trend to disappear, and the two sides draw together for mutual defense.

"This kind of challenge to their right to exist will force them to become even more aggressive politically," Hurd said. "It will be a long-term political fight."

Reversals are to be expected: A number of states, including Kentucky and New Mexico, have enacted changes to collective bargaining only to see them undone two years later.

"It's not unusual to see reversals, one administration to the next," Hurd said.

On Wednesday, before the Democrats' walk-out, Gov. Walker, asked by ABC News if he thought he had enough votes to assure passage of his bill, said, "Absolutely. We're waiting for some amendments, which we expect to receive within the hour. It will pass out of committee today. By the end of the week, it will have passed both houses."

As for the protesters, he questioned whether there really were as many as 30,000. But if there were, "it's a small percentage of the 300,000 state and government workers," not to mention of 5.5 million state taxpayers.

"I said today, earlier, that the people in the street have the right to be heard, but not to drown out the voices of 5.5 million."