THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Wisconsin Assembly passes bill to restrict union rights

By Todd Richmond
Associated Press / February 26, 2011

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MADISON, Wis. — Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly took the first significant action on their plan to strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers, abruptly passing the measure early yesterday morning before sleep-deprived Democrats realized what was happening.

The vote ended three straight days of punishing debate in the Assembly. But the political standoff over the bill — and the monumental protests at the state Capitol against it — appear far from over.

The Assembly’s vote sent the bill on to the Senate, but minority Democrats in that house have fled to Illinois to prevent a vote and say they will not return unless Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, agrees to discuss a compromise. Republicans who control the Senate sent state troopers out looking for them at their homes on Thursday, but they were not there.

“This kind of solidifies our resolve,’’ Senator Chris Larson, a Democrat, said yesterday after the Assembly vote. “If we come back, they’re going to ram this through without us having a say.’’

The governor did not sound conciliatory yesterday, saying during an afternoon appearance in Green Bay that although the GOP has “got to find a way to make it comfortable for those 14 senators to come back home,’’ Republicans had no intention of backing off the bill’s main tenets.

Walker’s proposal contains a number of provisions he says are designed to fill the state’s $137 million deficit and lay the groundwork for fixing a projected $3.6 billion shortfall in the upcoming 2011-13 budget.

The bill includes language that requires public workers to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance and that strips them of their right to collectively bargain benefits and work conditions. It is the loss of collective bargaining rights that has become a flashpoint.

Democrats and unions see the measure as an attack on workers’ rights and an attempt to cripple union support for Democrats. Union leaders say they would make pension and health care concessions if they can keep their bargaining rights, but Walker has refused to compromise.

Tens of thousands of people have jammed the Capitol since last week to protest, pounding on drums and chanting so loudly that police providing security have resorted to ear plugs. Hundreds have been sleeping in the building overnight, dragging in air mattresses and blankets.

Senator Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat, said yesterday that the Assembly’s passage of the bill did not change Senate Democrats’ intent to stay away.

With the Senate immobilized, Assembly Republicans decided to act and convened in the chamber Tuesday morning.

Democrats launched a filibuster, throwing out dozens of amendments and delivering rambling speeches. Each time Republicans tried to speed up the proceedings, Democrats rose from their seats and wailed that the GOP was stifling them.

Debate had gone on for 60 hours, and 15 Democrats were still waiting to speak when the vote started around 1 a.m. yesterday. Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer, Republican of Waukesha, opened the roll and closed it within seconds.

Democrats looked around, bewildered. Only 13 of the 38 Democratic members voted in time.

Republicans immediately marched out in single file. The Democrats rushed at them, pumping their fists and shouting “Shame!’’ and “Cowards!’’

The Republicans walked past them without responding.

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