By Michael A. Fletcher and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 5:48 PM
MADISON, WIS. - Tens of thousands of demonstrators swarmed the state Capitol building here Saturday in protest of Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to strip public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights.
Protesters have crowded around the Capitol for more than a week, since unrest erupted over the Republican governor's plan. Local media quoted police as saying the crowds Saturday were on track to rival those last weekend, which were estimated at nearly 70,000. Walker threatened on Friday to trigger as many as 12,000 layoffs beginning next week unless lawmakers enact his plan.
The demonstration is certain to be the largest of dozens taking place around the country against Walker and other Republican governors who have taken similar stands against their public employee unions. The progressive group MoveOn.org said it would hold "Save the American Dream" rallies in all 50 states, including one that drew hundreds of people to Dupont Circle in the District on Saturday afternoon.
Although unions have offered concessions they say would close the state's budget gap, Walker remained determined to achieve a resolution that he said would give state and local governments leverage to limit employee costs well into the future.
Without legislation to pare back employee health-care and pension benefits while repealing most collective bargaining rights for many public employees, Walker said, he would be forced to make cuts elsewhere in the budget that could lead to massive numbers of state and local employees losing their jobs.
"If we want to avoid the layoffs that will eventually come at the state and local level, the only way to achieve that" is to pass the bill, Walker said.
The layoffs would mark an escalation of a battle that has paralyzed the state Capitol. Fourteen Democratic state senators have fled Wisconsin to prevent the state Senate from having a quorum for considering the measure. Walker backed off earlier remarks that the layoffs would begin this week.
Nationally, Walker's efforts to break the power of public service unions - being replicated to some degree in several other Republican-led states - have thrown public employee unions into an existential crisis.
As a group, public employees generally earn less than comparably educated private-sector employees, but they tend to enjoy far better health-care and retirement benefits. The issue of their compensation has gained particular resonance at a time when states and municipalities across the country are struggling with huge budget deficits and ballooning costs for employees' health-care and pension obligations.
The controversy has lifted Walker to national prominence, and he says he is determined to make Wisconsin a leader in remaking the way state and local governments deal with their employees.
The clashes over public employee unions continued in other state capitals. In Indianapolis, hundreds of union supporters demonstrated at an otherwise quiet statehouse Friday as there appeared to be no end in sight to a partisan standoff that has paralyzed the legislature.
"I'm here to help save the jobs of thousands of hardworking Hoosiers," said Jim Szucs, a Teamster from South Bend, Ind.
Indiana's House Democrats remained in Urbana, Ill., denying the Republican majority a quorum it needs to pass legislation.
In New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie has made public employees prime targets of his efforts to curtail spending, union members rallied in support of Wisconsin public employees. Meanwhile, union leaders and their allies are planning to hold rallies at state capitols around the country Saturday in opposition to Walker's proposal.
After a raucous debate that ended with a rushed vote early Friday morning, the lower house of the Wisconsin legislature passed the measure proposed by Walker. The state Senate now has the bill and is awaiting the return of the Democratic senators to take it up.
Walker spent the day visiting three districts represented by senators who have decamped to Illinois, in an effort to pressure them into coming back. In remarks to reporters Friday, Walker called on the lawmakers to return and threatened to move ahead with reductions in aid to local governments and other cuts if his budget measure is not enacted soon.
"Now is the time to come home and vote," Walker told reporters.
Walker said he has until sometime next week before moving forward with the first wave of layoffs. Already, several school districts in the state have sent out notices to teachers warning that layoffs could be in the offing if lawmakers do not pass legislation cutting employee benefits.
With demonstrators camped out in the statehouse just steps from his office, Walker canceled a trip to Washington this weekend to take part in a meeting of the National Governors Association, where he was scheduled to lead a plenary session.
The standoff showed no signs of abating Friday. Thousands of noisy demonstrators continued to throng the rotunda of the historic statehouse in Madison, while others marched outside to protest what they called a naked attempt to break public employee unions.
In ads hastily put up on television and radio stations across the state, union leaders are emphasizing that they have already agreed to concessions that would close the state's $137 million budget deficit. Walker's insistence on curbing collective bargaining rights, they say, is a political move aimed at crippling a core constituency of the Democratic Party.
"Working families are not deterred in the slightest because the fight continues in the Senate as we knew it would," read a statement released by a coalition of unions in reaction to Friday's vote in the Wisconsin Assembly. "All across the state . . . thousands of workers are rallying, making phone calls and knocking on doors to protect their rights to have a voice at work."
Under Walker's plan, most public workers - excluding police, firefighters and state troopers - would lose bargaining rights for anything other than pay and would have to pay half of their pension costs and at least 12 percent of their health-care costs. Walker, who took office last month, says the emergency measure would save $300 million over the next two years to help close a $3.6 billion budget gap.
Walker has refused to compromise on the measure, saying that stripping bargaining rights is essential for local governments to get their books in order. In recent weeks, Walker said, several localities across the state have agreed on contracts with public employees that enhance benefits and pay, crowding out vital services. He said those deals underscore the need to curtail collective bargaining rights for public workers.
Walker says he is determined to see his plan through.
"If we fail to do this," he said, " . . . the alternative is the state budget is still going to have reductions in it."
Staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.