Thousands of demonstrators flooded the Wisconsin State Capitol building last night after Republican senators took a surprise vote to strip most public employee workers of their right to collectively bargain. The bill could be made law if the Assembly votes today. The State Senate has been at a standstill since all 14 Democratic members fled the Wisconsin to prevent quorum. But on Wednesday, Republicans advanced the measure by stripping it of fiscal measures requiring a 20-member quorum for action. We speak to graduate student organizer Peter Rickman, Democratic Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, and State Democratic Sen. Chris Larson, who remains in Illinois. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We begin in Madison, Wisconsin, where thousands of protesters flooded the Capitol building last night after Republican senators took a surprise vote to strip most public employee workers of their right to collectively bargain. The Wisconsin Assembly is expected to vote on the measure today.
The Senate has been at a standstill ever since all 14 Democratic members of that body fled the state three weeks ago to prevent the chamber from attaining a quorum needed to pass the Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill that included the anti-union measures.
After holding a closed-door meeting with Governor Walker on Wednesday afternoon, Republicans stripped the bill of fiscal measures that require a 20-member quorum for action. In possible violation of the state’s open meetings laws, Republican senators held a quick vote last night without debate.
AMY GOODMAN: When word got out about the Republican actions, thousands of workers, students and union supporters raced to the Capitol. Police originally tried to control access to the building. But after protesters began climbing through the windows, the police stood down. Within hours, an estimated 7,000 people had re-occupied the Capitol. Chants of "Shame on you!" echoed through the building. And the protesters have not left, as many spent the night sleeping inside the Capitol last night.
Unions are now trying to figure out their next steps. Calls are already growing for a general strike in Wisconsin. This is Joe Conway, president of Madison Local 311 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, interviewed by The Uptake’s Sam Mayfield.
SAM MAYFIELD: We’re hearing people talk about a call for a general strike. What do you think about that?
JOE CONWAY: I’m in total agreement. We should start walking out tomorrow, the next day, see how long they can last.
SAM MAYFIELD: So you’re advocating for a general strike, even amongst firefighters?
JOE CONWAY: I am. We’ll see what they want to do, if the union body decides. But it’s time that these people, the Republicans, are held accountable for what they’re doing. This isn’t just a Wisconsin thing. This is a nationwide movement to attack all unions and to attack all working men and women of Wisconsin, the United States. They’re not playing fair.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now is Peter Rickman, activist with the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Peter, good to have you with us. You slept overnight at the Capitol. Explain what took place over this last, oh, 20 hours.
PETER RICKMAN: Thanks for having me this morning, Amy.
Well, what happened was that, you know, our labor movement here has been working since we were removed from the Capitol last Thursday from our few-week-long occupation. We’ve been working to engage in the trench warfare, fighting back against this unprecedented attack on worker rights and the assault on worker justice. And out of nowhere, late in the afternoon yesterday, we got word that Scott Walker and the Republicans were going to take their attacks to a whole 'nother level. Their unprecedented power grab is just taking on a whole new face. It's a total affront to democracy here in Wisconsin and nationwide. I think, you know, we’ve shown — we’ve seen the craven and malicious attempts to simply silence dissent by inventing, whole-cloth, new procedural ways to strip workers of rights.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what exactly they did last night?
PETER RICKMAN: You know, I’m a graduate student in public affairs and a law student, and I’m still trying to make sure that I can wrap my hands around what exactly they did. It certainly doesn’t follow anything that we learned in civics class in high school. It doesn’t come out of the Schoolhouse Rock song "I’m Just a Bill."
What they did, as far as I can understand, is create a conference committee that simply said that the bill had been passed by the Senate, and they took a quickie vote there, and sent right back to the Assembly a whole new bill. And it’s a bill that doesn’t include anything that has a direct fiscal impact, really just demonstrating that Scott Walker and the Republican claims that this was about fixing budget problems was a lie all along.
So, now that the State Assembly has to take this bill up — and, you know, I can’t imagine that the Republican majority there wouldn’t slam this thing through right away this morning, and then it would go to Governor Walker for his signature. And in less than 24 hours, we’ll have seen, you know, literal about-faces, 180-degree about-faces, from some Republican leaders who kept claiming for weeks and weeks, "We have to pass this bill to fix Wisconsin’s deficit." And working folks, union leaders, we’ve all been saying all along this isn’t about fiscal problems, this is about attacks on unions. And they just showed that with their new legislative maneuverings, that even many conservative and Republican figures have said have simply violated the law in Wisconsin.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in other words, by stripping out the spending portions of the original bill, they claim that they no longer needed the quorum vote, because it involved financing, then just kept the anti-union provisions. But did they — since it was, in essence, a new bill, what about the issue of proper procedure, the public meetings requirements, the question of holding even a hearing on the new bill before taking a vote on it? What’s the possibility of that — of a legal challenge on that standing up?
PETER RICKMAN: Well, I’d say the possibility of a legal challenge is pretty darn near 100 percent certainty. You know, there’s a lot of problems, from what I can tell, and I have heard from a number of people in the Capitol their own various takes on what kind of problems there have been — you know, from the fact that when people requested to see copies of the new bill, they were told, first of all, it’s the same thing, and then, when requesters were pointing out that, no, it’s not the same thing, they said, "Oh, yeah, there’s a few changes." But, you know, still no production of a bill. There was no hearing. There was no proper notice.
You know, the problems with the procedural mechanisms are many, but I think, still, the focus here has got to be on the substance. The Republican leadership in the legislature knew that they had massive opposition. Sixty to 70 percent of the people in the state oppose this. So they had to come up with a way to get around the fact that an unprecedented mobilization of working folks from across the state have come down in mass to demonstrate the opposition, occupying the Capitol for three weeks straight. So, you know, this is really just about an unprecedented attempt to strip workers of basic fundamental civil rights. And they’re going to do whatever they have to, legal or illegal, to try to get this done, because they know that if they don’t, they have awoken a giant, a sleeping giant, of a worker rights movement in this state.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, last evening we reached Wisconsin State Democratic Representative Kelda Helen Roys. She called the prosecution of Republican senators for last night’s vote.
REP. KELDA HELEN ROYS: Basically, we are outraged, and our constituents are outraged. I think anyone who takes a fair view of government believes that the highest elected officials ought to follow the law of the land. And in this case, it’s very clear that they did not. They knew they didn’t. And they purposefully and knowingly violated the open meetings laws. Our question is: what actions can and shall we take? I mean, certainly, I would expect these crimes to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Our attorney general, a Republican no less, very conservative Republican, has made it part of his main platform to promote open government and our open meetings laws. And so, you know, if he practices what he preaches, he really ought to take the lead in prosecuting these guys.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Wisconsin Democratic Assemblymember Kelda Helen Roys. We’re joined on the telephone right now by Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson. He’s one of the Democratic 14, the entire Democratic state senatorial delegation who went to Illinois so that the Republicans in the Senate would not have a quorum to vote on this anti-union bill.
State Senator Chris Larson, can you tell us where you are right now and what your response is to what happened last night?
SEN. CHRIS LARSON: Yeah, I’m back in Illinois. I was on my way back to Madison yesterday, when I first heard that they were planning on trying to jam this bill through, to see if there was something to do anything. My colleagues were trying to get ready. And there was obviously no way that any of us could get there in time for us to vote, to have an input, to even read the bill or see what they were doing.
This was under the guise — we thought that we were having pretty good discussions. Obviously, Walker tried to make it seem like we were having discussions, by putting out the emails, you know, showing that we had put ideas back and forth. In reality, those weren’t really going anywhere, but he was trying to make it seem that way. So we figured, OK, we might have something going. So there was this blackout period where no one was able to talk to the Republicans for a couple days.
And the next thing we heard, it came out of this committee, announced they were going to be jamming this bill through. And it was jaw-dropping. And this was exactly one month, almost to the day, of when they introduced the original bill, when they started talking about the stripping of workers’ rights. So, it seems that there’s no new low that the Republicans aren’t willing to go to in stripping workers’ rights, attacking the middle class, going after unions, and trying to make a political point. So, right now we’re — you know, it’s pretty staggering what they did.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Senator, what are the options now for you, the dissident Democratic senators? Because there are obviously some several good government groups in Wisconsin who claim at least that on technical grounds that by stripping the spending portions of the bill, that the Senate did not need a quorum to vote on this. What are you planning to do next, and your group?
SEN. CHRIS LARSON: Well, there will definitely be a legal challenge. I know that the Assembly is looking at that, too, about open meetings laws and other aspects of it. So that will be pursued. There are lawyers who are going to be looking at it. So there will definitely be a legal challenge.
But let’s be clear, you know, what happened now, because I think we can get caught up in process. And it was pretty bad, but they’ve done a lot of this. You know, you’ve got to go back and remember, they shut down the public hearing on this, you know, in the middle of the night, while there were still hundreds of people who wanted to be heard. They shut down the debate in the Assembly, after they had heard enough, and pushed for a vote with 10 seconds’ notice in the middle of the night. They shut down the legislative hotline, because they didn’t want to hear from people anymore. And then they shut down the Capitol and locked people out, because they got sick of seeing people who were telling them that this was the wrong thing to do, 60 to 70 percent of the people of our state.
And then they did this. With very little notice, they jammed the bill through without letting anybody see it. In some cases, they didn’t even print it off and give it to our offices so we knew what was in the bill when they were actually voting on it. So this is just a new low, as Republicans go for a race to the bottom — and even the more moderate members, who we thought would step up instead of being a rubber stamp — and decided to end their political careers, basically, over this, as people move from the Capitol now into the streets and onto the recall efforts against Republicans.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Chris Larson, the vote was 18 to one. First there was the closed meeting with the Governor, with Walker, and the Republicans. He left. They continued meeting. They figured this out, and they went back into open session. Eighteen to one, one Republican, Senator Dale Schultz of Richland Center, the only one to vote against the bill. He said in a statement collective bargaining should be kept intact because it has preserved labor peace for decades. He said the two sides should have been able to work out a deal, and said, "I’ve had the honor and privilege of representing folks in southwest and south central Wisconsin for 28 years, and where I come from," he said, "'compromise' isn’t a dirty word." Can you tell us about him and the recall movement that is beginning to recall some of these senators?
SEN. CHRIS LARSON: Well, Senator Schultz really took a brave stand, you know, and he — from the very beginning, he was one who was standing up and trying to put amendments forward, trying to slow this down, trying to see what could be done to try and make this bad bill a little bit better. He had some ideas of scaling it back a bit. And he had some real conversations with the Democratic senators in trying to do this. And he was getting a lot of pressure. He was getting browbeaten by the leadership over there, by Governor Walker, who wanted to have his way and didn’t want people questioning him.
So, we thought that there was going to be other progress, and we know that there were some Senate Republicans who were considering changing, who had mentioned it back in their districts, who were feeling the pressure of these recalls and feeling the pressure of their constituents. But I think what happened is [inaudible] yesterday, they were meeting in — all day in caucus, in a meeting, for hours, where the Governor came in. We don’t know what was said in there, but we kind of have a pretty good idea based on the output. And the day before that, they were in a meeting the entire day, really pressuring these guys, really pressuring them to make sure that they voted the correct way. So I think it’s amazing that Senator Schultz stood up to that and spoke out for collective bargaining. I think it’s a shame that the other 18 didn’t find their backbone yesterday.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Senator Larson, I wanted to ask you again, what will your group do now? I mean, do you have unanimity among yourselves? Are you going back to Wisconsin? Or what will — are you going to participate in the Senate once again?
SEN. CHRIS LARSON: Well, as we’ve said, we were committed to staying here until collective bargaining rights are preserved. Obviously now that’s taken a severe blow. So we’re recentering ourselves right now and seeing what’s possible, making sure we’ve exhausted the whole process before we make our next decision. So we’ll be getting — we’ll be getting together today and going over everything and trying to figure out the next best move. Obviously there will be a legal challenge to this. Obviously there’s going to be a new push towards the Republican recalls, with or without us, based off of the number of people who are very upset with the process. So I think we’re going to be looking at all of that and deciding what’s going to be best moving forward.
AMY GOODMAN: State Senator Chris Larson, thanks for joining us, Democratic member of the Wisconsin Senate, is in Illinois right now with all other 13 Democratic state senators. The entire delegation has left Wisconsin so they’ll prevent a quorum from taking place in the state legislature.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Michael Moore joined us last night just as the vote went down. We’ll also speak with Frank Emspak of Workers Independent News. Stay with us.