Wisconsin protests continue; counter-demonstrators support governor's bill

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside the Wisconsin Capitol for a fifth day of demonstrations against a budget bill that would strip public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights. (Feb. 19)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 10:21 PM

MADISON, WIS. - And on the sixth day, the counter-protesters came.

A clear, cold Saturday saw some of the largest crowds yet descend upon Wisconsin's state capitol to march, chant and shout about Republican Gov. Scott Walker's controversial proposal to trim benefits and curtail collective-bargaining rights for many of the state's unionized workers.

The overwhelming majority of protesters were teachers, students and other public-service workers who spent the better part of a week demonstrating against Walker's bill. But Saturday's throngs included a sizable and vocal collection of tea party activists who arrived to show support for the embattled governor.

"I wanted Scott Walker to know that there are tons of people behind him," said Karen Wartinbee of Oconomowoc, Wis., who carried a sign that read, "Go Scott Go!"

Law enforcement officials ramped up security Saturday, bolstering their ranks with officers from nearby counties to guard against any violent clashes. But the protests remained largely peaceful, if not altogether friendly.

The opposing groups traded ear-splitting chants of "Kill the bill!" and "Pass the bill!" Some demonstrators ended up in nose-to-nose arguments over whether unions were bankrupting the state or protecting its workers. Others simply traded insults and made obscene gestures from a distance.

Walker's bill would force public workers to put 5.8 percent of their wages into the pension system and pay a larger share of their health insurance in addition to curtailing their collective-bargaining rights.

Opponents argue that Walker helped create the budget shortfall by giving away millions in tax breaks to private businesses. Union leaders have offered to make concessions on benefits but have drawn the line at restrictions on their collective-bargaining rights.

Meanwhile, the state's 14 Democratic senators showed no sign of returning from out of state, where they headed last week to stall a vote on the controversial measure. Walker urged them to return in a statement Saturday, saying they "should come back to Wisconsin and do their jobs."

For all the populist feel at the capitol, progressive and conservative political figures have seized on the Wisconsin protests as an opportunity to shape the national debate.

Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, paid a visit to the capitol Friday, as did civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. President Obama's organizing arm was on hand, as was the Services Employees International Union and other national labor groups.

On Saturday, influential conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity, funded in part by billionaire industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch, helped to organize the counter-rally at the capitol in support of Walker's proposals.

"He's actually trying to do the right thing and something we believe is responsible government," said Ned Ryun, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and the president of American Majority, a grass-roots political training organization that also helped coordinate Saturday's rally alongside tea party groups across Wisconsin.

By mid-afternoon, neither side had done much to win over the other, and both vowed to return day after day until resolution came.

"Government is too big," said Dane Christiansen, a hardwood-floor refinisher who drove from his home south of Madison. "I voted for Walker to come and cut the budget."

Stacy Smith, a first-grade teacher who was marching with her husband, said, "People are willing to give up the money, but we're not willing to give up our rights." She said she planned to return to protest another day.

Staff writer Peter Whoriskey in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company