Protesters have been converging on the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, since mid-February to protest the governor’s budget bill. Their voices are angry, energetic, accusatory.
The bill, which proponents say reels in spending but critics say is an overt attempt at union-busting, prompted 14 Democratic state senators to leave the state so they wouldn’t be forced to vote on the bill.
Despite reports of progress in the negotiations, there are still several bones of contention. The original bill by Gov. Scott Walker requires all public workers but police officers and firefighters to increase contributions to their pension and health insurance, and it prohibits unions from collecting dues.
It also restricts the unions’ collective bargaining power, caps wages and requires annual votes for unions to remain certified, which critics say would be costly.
The crowds have thinned since the protests first began, but many remain adamant that Walker’s bill must be defeated. Here is what some of them are saying:
The 58-year-old from Madison said he’s worn out from walking 5 or 6 miles a day during the last 12 days of the protests.
He accuses the statehouse of “bully politics” and said he doesn’t appreciate “the way they’re trying to change things, ram things down our throat without a chance of really seeing the bill.”
He has faith, though, that the protesters will prevail.
“People who use democracy and understand what democracy is, always win in the end,” he said.
Carr, 48, has been attending the protests since they began, stopping in during lunch breaks and on her days off.
The Madison union member said that when she first heard of Walker’s proposals, “my jaw just dropped and I knew we had to do something to stop this.”
She predicted that if the bill passes, it will be detrimental to the state.
“The more that comes out about what’s in this bill – both the budget repair bill and the budget itself – it’s going to rip this state apart. It’s going to rip this state to the seams.”
The Madison stay-at-home mother of two has been a mainstay at the protests, pushing her 2-year-old son’s stroller amid the demonstrations.
The boy has heard the chants for 20 days now, and Weisser said he asks every morning, “Are we going to kill the bill, mom?”
Wielding a sign that reads, “This is a fight for democracy and human rights. Hold the line,” the 31-year-old said she has no government or union affiliation. She simply feels her fellow Wisconsinites are having their rights trampled on.
She feels the bill has little to do with the budget and is more focused on “busting unions so that we have to live in a corporate-controlled world.” She worries that it will hurt services like recycling programs and increase classroom sizes for her 9-year-old, she said.
“Now that I have stood up, I can’t sit down,” she said. “I’m just a mom who sees my rights and the rights of my fellow people being violated, and I’m not going to sit down for it.”
The 65-year-old former health care worker was bundled in a University of Wisconsin jacket to ward off the 20- and 30-degree temperatures in Madison.
A union member, she said she has been to the Capitol about 11 times since the protests began.
She stated flatly that the budget bill is wrong and that the state should continue engaging in collective bargaining.
“My favorite book of the Bible is the book of James,” she said, “and it says if you don’t get up off your bottom and do something about your faith, then your faith is worthless.”
Asked if she was optimistic the protests would be effective, she replied, “We always hope. That’s what Christians are all about.”
Cartwright is from Gladstone, and he has taken time off work to attend the last nine days of demonstrations at the Capitol.
A member of Local 107, he said he’s disturbed that Walker’s first step in office was to disband the unions. He’d like to see a compromise and said he and other protesters are at the Capitol to support the 14 Democrats who fled the state.
“(Walker’s) on a beeline to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state,” he said, using the term used for states where workers decide for themselves whether to join unions. “That’s the ultimate goal for Mr. Walker. We’ve got to stop him on the front end. We’ll be here as long as those 14 Democrats are out.”
The 50-year-old Madison resident looked tired but said he’s “fired up and ready to go.”
He joined the protests on their third day because he felt the “whole bill just wasn’t right.” He lives and works near the Capitol “and when I get off work I come out here and make sure my voice is heard.”
“The whole bill and the whole budget are just so contrary to what Wisconsin is all about, from BadgerCare (state health care coverage) to union-busting to our environment to green power to green jobs to green energy to green trains. Everything is just wrong with what Scott Walker is doing,” he said.
Though Clark said he’d like to see the bill killed largely for environmental reasons, he also believes Wisconsin needs a constitution that prevents both corporations and unions from buying elections. He feels such a measure would allow unions to purchase more health insurance for their members.
“I’m not yelling so much, but I don’t need to,” he said. “I just need to think about how we’re going to win.”
Ross is one of only three building engineers for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and he comes out to join the protests every Tuesday, his day off.
He's from Milwaukee County – which Walker represented as an assemblyman and county executive before winning the governorship last year – and he believes the governor is attempting to dismantle the unions.
“He was that way in Milwaukee County and he was real stubborn there, and he’s carrying on here,” he said.
The 50-year-old member of Local 317 said the bill “cuts to home” because his father was a union teacher in Chicago, Illinois, and Wisconsin, which “afforded me the opportunity to go to college and just live a decent life.”
His biggest fear, he said, is “that they’re going to pass this and drag the senators back here illegally,” but he remains optimistic.
“I think that the people have been reinvigorated about this, and we’ll persevere,” he said.