“I have never been prouder of our movement than I am at this moment,” shouted Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt, as he surveyed the crowds of union members and their supporters that surged around the state Capitol and into the streets of Madison Wednesday, literally closing the downtown as tens of thousands of Wisconsinites protested their Republican governor’s attempt to strip public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights.
Where Tuesday’s mid-day protests drew crowds estimated at 12,000 to 15,000, Wednesday’s mid-day rally drew 30,000, according to estimates by organizers. Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, a veteran of twenty-seven years on the city’s force, said he had has never see a protest of this size at the Capitol—and he noted that, while crowd estimates usually just measure those outside, this time the inside of the sprawling state Capitol was “packed.”
On Wednesday night, an estimated 20,000 teachers and their supporters rallied outside the Capitol and then marched into the building, filling the rotunda, stairways and hallways. Chants of “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” shook the building as legislators met in committee rooms late into the night.
The country was starting to take notice, as broadcast and cable-news satellite trucks rolled into town. The images they captured were stunning, as peaceful crowds filled vast stretches of the square that surrounds the seat of state government.
Republican legislators—who had been poised to pass the governor’s plan Thursday, and might yet do so—were clearly paying attention. Two GOP senators broke with the governor, at least to some extent. Dale Schultz from rural southeastern Wisconsin and Van Wanggaard from the traditional manufacturing center of Racine, proposed an alternative bill that would allow limited bargaining rights for public employees on wages, pensions and healthcare for the next two years but allow them to continue to bargain on other issues.
While that’s hardly an attractive prospect to state workers—as it would also require them to make significantly higher pension and healthcare contributions—the measure rejects the most draconian component’s of the governor’s plan. Other Republicans resisted the proposal, however, offering only minor amendments to the governor’s plan.
If Schultz and Wanggaard actually vote “no” Thursday, when the measure is to be taken up, just one more Republican senator would have to join them in order to block the bill.
That the first real movement by Republicans came after Wednesday’s rally was hardly surprising, as few state capital’s have seen the sort of mobilization that occurred at mid-day, and that is likely to reoccur at nightfall as teachers from across the state are expected to pour into the city for a rally and candlelight vigil.
In some senses, Wednesday’s remarkable rally began Tuesday evening, when Madison Teachers Inc., the local education union, announced that teachers would leave their classrooms to spend the day lobbying legislators to “Kill the Bill” that has been proposed by newly-elected Republican Governor Scott Walker.