Thousands of protesters surround Wis. Capitol

/ Source: The Associated Press

An estimated 70,000 protesters converged on the Wisconsin Capitol on Saturday, with supporters of Republican efforts to scrap the union rights of state workers facing off against pro-union activists.

Supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to ease Wisconsin's budget woes by reducing the power of public employee unions gathered on the east side of the Capitol, where they were surrounded by a much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators.

There were no clashes.

Pro-union activists and their supporters since Tuesday have filled the Capitol with chanting, drumbeats and anti-Walker slogans.

Walker has proposed legislation he says is needed to bring government spending under control. It does so, in part, by requiring government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs while largely eliminating their collective bargaining rights.

The dispute is being watched carefully because if Walker prevails in Wisconsin, other conservative Republican governors may try to go after powerful public employee unions as part of their budget-cutting policies.

Saturday's protest was marked by opposing chants: "Pass the bill! Pass the bill!" and "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!"

"Go home!" union supporters yelled at Scott Lemke, a 46-year-old machine parts salesman from Cedarburg who wore a hard hat and carried a sign that read "If you don't like it, quit" on one side, and "If you don't like that, try you're fired" on the other.

The Wisconsin governor — elected in November's Republican wave that also gave control of the state Assembly and Senate to Republicans — says that concessions from public employee unions are needed to deal with the state's projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs of government workers.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald reaffirmed that Republicans have not been swayed by the pro-labor protesters.

"The bill is not negotiable," Fitzgerald said inside a heavily guarded Senate parlor at the Capitol. "The bill will pass as is."

Fitzgerald said Republicans have the votes needed to pass the so-called "budget repair" bill just as soon as 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state on Thursday and remain in hiding return to the Statehouse. Without them, there isn't the required quorum to vote on legislation.

The missing Democrats have threatened to stay away for weeks and remain more resolved than ever to stay away "as long as it takes" until Walker agrees to negotiate, Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Saturday.

"I don't think he's really thought it through, to be honest," Erpenbach said.

Democrats offered again Saturday to agree to the parts of Walker's proposal that would double workers' health insurance contributions and require them to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pensions, so long as workers retained their rights to negotiate with the state as a union.

Madison police estimated 60,000 or more people were outside the Capitol with up to 8,000 more inside.

Doctors from numerous hospitals set up a station near the Capitol to provide notes covering public employees' absences. Family physician Lou Sanner, 59, of Madison, said he had given out hundreds of notes. Many of the people he spoke with seemed to be suffering from stress, he said.

"What employers have a right to know is if the patient was assessed by a duly licensed physician about time off of work," Sanner said. "Employers don't have a right to know the nature of that conversation or the nature of that illness. So it's as valid as every other work note that I've written for the last 30 years."