Senators' absence stalls anti-union vote in Wisconsin


THE GOVERNOR of Wisconsin was yesterday reported to have dispatched state troopers to the home of the state senate’s leading Democrat in an attempt to force a vote on controversial legislation that would decimate the power of public sector unions.

The dramatic move occurred as demonstrations continued for a fifth day in Madison, the capital, and a day after President Barack Obama joined the fray, accusing Governor Scott Walker of committing an “assault” on trade unions.

The protests in Wisconsin have already spread to Ohio, where some 4,000 public sector workers opposed an attempt by the Republican governor John Kasich to ban collective bargaining on health benefits and to link salaries to performance.

Similar conflicts could emerge in Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, whose governors espouse similar ideologies. The recession has left states with an expected aggregate deficit of up to $175 billion (€127 billion) next year.

Wisconsin, which was historically a leader in trade union rights, is portrayed as the battleground in a nationwide campaign of union-busting by Republicans.

In an interview with a Milwaukee television reporter on Thursday, Mr Obama said, “Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions.”

Mr Obama is eager to secure the support of labour unions for his re-election campaign, but he was also careful not to alienate swing voters who lean towards the deficit hawks. “We had to impose a freeze on pay increases on federal workers for the next two years as part of my overall budget freeze,” he said. “I think those kinds of adjustments are the right thing to do.”

The Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America, Mr Obama’s political campaign machine, were less nuanced in their approach. The DNC chairman Tim Kaine met with union leaders in Madison, and Organizing for America made phone calls and posted Twitter and Facebook messages to mobilise demonstrators.

The emergency legislation introduced by Mr Walker on February 11th would ban teachers, sanitation workers, doctors and nurses at public hospitals from engaging in collective bargaining on anything other than minimal wage rises, which are limited to increases in the consumer price index. Walker would also force public workers to contribute more to their own pensions and healthcare insurance.

At least nine people were arrested on Thursday, when 25,000 protesters stormed the Wisconsin Capitol building. They staged a sit-in in the senate chamber, chanting, “Freedom, democracy, unions!” as the state’s 19 Republican senators tried to convene.

Meanwhile, all 14 of Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators vanished, to prevent the majority Republicans from attaining a quorum of 20 senators, which would be required to pass the legislation. The sergeant-at-arms searched their offices, to no avail.

Then a journalist from the Chicago Tribunesent a hilarious dispatch from Rockford, just across the border in Illinois. A television news helicopter hovered over the Clock Tower Resort, where runaway senators milled about the lobby amid preparations for an unrelated Chocoholic Frolic.

The Wisconsin lawmakers were pursued by what the Tribunecalled a “media horde”. They never checked into the hotel and vanished again. Some gave telephone interviews from what they described as “secure locations”. Journalists hounded the bartender at the resort’s Irish pub, asking whether she’d spoken to the missing legislators. She referred them to an employee wearing a leprechaun costume for St Patrick’s Day rehearsals, whereupon a reporter ran after the leprechaun.

The Washington Postthis week referred to Mr Walker as “Wisconsin’s Mubarak”, and by Thursday evening, the capitol building was beginning to look like Tahrir Square, with protesters setting up camp in the marble halls with sleeping bags and provisions. The New York Timesreported on a festive atmosphere, with drums beating and students dancing.

Republican senators met briefly yesterday to renew their appeal for the Democrats to return. The Republican majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, said he asked the governor to send two state troopers to the home of the minority leader, Mark Miller, apparently with the intention of bringing Mr Miller manu militarito witness a vote. Democrats said they might return today.