March 10, 2011 -- A political explosion hit Wisconsin today as the state legislature voted to strip most state workers of their right to bargain collectively.
The vote, which was delayed for much of the afternoon by protesters clogging the state capitol building, caps a weeks-long standoff between the state's minority Democrats and newly empowered Republican Gov. Scott Walker, working with majorities in the state legislature to use a budget bill to weaken state employee unions.
Democrats today asked a state court judge to impose a restraining order on the bill.
Walker told a news conference he'll sign the legislation "as quickly as I can legally."
Thousands of protesters converged outside the state capitol in Madison. Inside, protestors sang "solidarity forever" and about a dozen were dragged from near the assembly chamber. None were arrested.
The dramatic developments in Wisconsin came after senate Republicans, having lost patience with the 14 absent Democrats, pulled off a political end-run.
Senate Democrats left the state to prevent a vote on the budget bill.
But Republican state senators gathered late Wednesday in a hastily called conference to set aside language weakening employee unions from the budget bill. That allowed them to avoid a quorum -- required in any measures that spend money -- and ram the bill through in a matter of minutes.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the actions of Wisconsin Republicans an "absolute corruption of democracy."
As word of the vote spread Wednesday night, hundreds of protesters poured into the capital rotunda, shouting, "Shame, Shame."
By early morning, several dozen remained camped out in blankets and sleeping bags. Nearly everyone was caught off guard, including the 14 Democrats holed up across the border in Illinois.
Senate Democrats had fled the state for more than two weeks to block consideration of the budget bill as protesters set up camp in Madison. Walker, with his insistence that state employees be stripped of bargaining rights even after they agreed to concessions in pay and benefits, set off a national debate about unions and employees.
Protests spread to Ohio and Indiana in recent weeks. More than 8,000 protesters gathered in Indiana today.
Walker declared victory Wednesday.
"The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused," he said. "In order to move the state forward, 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.
"The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs," he said after the quorum was sidestepped.
The last-minute maneuver infuriated Democrats.
Minority Leader Mark Miller, in a statement, blasted the Republicans, saying "their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten."
Democrats accused the senate leadership of violating Wisconsin's open meeting law, but Republican majority leader Scott Fitzgerald said, "We thought all indications [were] that the Democrats were not returning anytime soon. ... We needed to move the process forward."
Walker, whose poll ratings have dipped during the standoff, applauded the action.
The fight has hardly ended: Recall efforts are underway against 16 Wisconsin senators, including eight Republicans and eight Democrats.
Union supporters called for demonstrations in a dozen other cities and towns across the state. The battle in Wisconsin may be the most intense, but other states have moved recently to limit union rights, including Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and Kansas.