MADISON, Wis. - Several thousand workers continue to occupy the state Capitol today, singing, chanting and drumming, in the ninth day of their struggle to defend collective bargaining for Wisconsin's public employees. Among them are hundreds who have been camped out inside the building since last Tuesday when the protests began against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting plan.
Outside the Capitol this morning, thousands massed for the 12th major rally since the protests began.
Down Main Street came 1,000 police, firefighters and sheet-metal workers, heading to the rally site. Some made their way inside the Capitol to join those "holding the fort" there.
Hundreds of nurses from Wisconsin, Illinois and as far away as West Virginia and California marched into the Capitol grounds.
Sixty nurses came up from Chicago, where they had boarded busses at 6 a.m. Many had just gotten off their night shift, but said they were determined to join their sisters and brothers in the Badger State.
"Collective bargaining contracts for nurses are as important for patients as they are for the nurses," said Leslie Curtis, Midwest regional director of National Nurses United, who is based in Chicago. Pointing to the nurses around her, mostly women, she said, "Any one of the women here will tell you that their collective bargaining contracts are practically the only wedge they have to pressure for better services for their patients."
Meanwhile, with Democratic state senators having left the state to block action on the governor's bill by the Republican-controlled Senate, GOP lawmakers tried on Tuesday to ram the measure through the state Assembly. But Democrats responded with a 25-hour filibuster. When they recessed this morning, Democratic lawmakers were in a celebratory mood.
A senior Democratic Assembly staffer, Mary Lou Kelleher, said, "I'll tell you, today, for the first time in my life, I'm really, really, really proud to be a Democrat." Standing in the hallway near her office, she had to shout over the noise of cheering, drum-beating workers in the Capitol rotunda.
During the Assembly session, Kelleher said, everyone could hear the demonstrators chanting outside. Many Democratic lawmakers prefaced their filibuster remarks by asking their Republican colleagues, "Can you hear the people outside?" and telling them, "Your intransigence affects people's lives." The Republicans sat stone-faced, she said.
The workers had Gov. Walker on the run today. Walker had a meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. with Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's version of the Chamber of Commerce. But AFSCME, the state, county and municipal employees union, heard about it and organized a demonstration outside. Walker got wind of the plan and changed his time to 10 a.m. to avoid the workers. But Thor Backus, an organizer for AFSCME Wisconsin Council 40 and head of the union's operations inside the Capitol, put the word out, and a couple hundred workers ran down the street this morning to catch Walker.
Nevertheless, AFSCME kept going with its plan for a mass demonstration at 2 p.m. outside the corporate confab, at Menona Terrace conference center, near the Capitol. "Walker thinks he can do his job while assaulting ours," the union says. "We plan on tracking down the fleeing Walker until he finally talks to us."
Backus said Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce funded the election of three right-wing state Supreme Court judges in last fall's election.
Big business not only moved to take over the state legislature, they also moved to take over the state courts, Backus said.
Photo: Workers rally in Madison last Friday. (PW/Teresa Albano)