February 16, 2011- In one of the largest protests in recent memory, thousands of angry union supporters gathered at the state Capitol on Tuesday to oppose a bill by Gov. Scott Walker that would greatly weaken organized labor in Wisconsin.
More than 12,000 protesters gathered in two separate rallies outside the Capitol, many of them carrying signs and chanting "Recall Walker" or "Kill this bill." Thousands more crowded inside the rotunda and watched TV monitors broadcasting a public hearing on the governor's proposal.
Capitol Police officers, Department of Natural Resources wardens, UW police and state troopers provided beefed-up security, but the crowd remained peaceful — if loud.
Cheers erupted every time someone in the hearing voiced opposition to the governor's bill, aimed at erasing a $137 million deficit in the current budget. Unveiled Friday, Walker's plan would remove collective bargaining rights for most of the 175,000 state and local government employees, allowing most workers to negotiate only over salary.
Walker, however, exempted most law enforcement, firefighters and Wisconsin State Patrol troopers from the change. On Tuesday, members of the firefighters union received a loud ovation from the crowd outside the Capitol as they marched through the rally, holding signs displaying solidarity with their fellow state and local employees.
"What's good for one of us is good for all of us," said Russell Griswold, a retired electrician from West Allis. Griswold worked as a union electrician for 46 years and has a nice retirement thanks to unions, he said. He came out Tuesday because he is afraid those who follow him will not enjoy the same benefits.
The governor said the changes are needed to overcome not only this year's deficit but a far deeper hole in his first two-year budget, which he plans to introduce Tuesday. If his proposal fails, Walker has said he would likely have to lay off about 1,500 state workers by June 30 to make up for the current budget's shortfall. He also said the budget emergency doesn't allow time to negotiate new contracts with unions.