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Lawmakers flee US state to block anti-union bill

world Updated: Feb 18, 2011 19:02 IST

Faced with a near-certain Republican victory that would end a half-century of collective bargaining for public workers, Democrats in the state of Wisconsin retaliated with the only weapon they had left: They fled.

Fourteen Democratic lawmakers disappeared from the state Capitol on Thursday, just as the state Senate was about to begin debating the measure aimed at easing the state's budget crunch. By refusing to show up for a vote, the group brought the debate to a swift halt and hoped to pressure Republicans to the negotiating table.

"The plan is to try and slow this down because it's an extreme piece of legislation that's tearing this state apart," Sen. Jon Erpenbach said.

The move drew cheers from tens of thousands of protesters - teachers, prison guards and others targeted by the proposal - who filled the Statehouse during the past three days. Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who took office just last month, has made the bill a top priority. He urged the group to return and called the boycott a "stunt."

"It's more about theatrics than anything else," Walker said, predicting that the group would come back in a day or two, after realizing "they're elected to do a job."

Walker said Democrats could still offer amendments to change the bill, but he vowed not to concede on his plan to end most collective bargaining rights.

In addition to eliminating collective-bargaining rights, the legislation also would make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage - increases Walker calls "modest" compared with those in the private sector.

Unions still could represent workers, but could not seek pay increases above those pegged to the Consumer Price Index unless approved by a public referendum. Unions also could not force employees to pay dues and would have to hold annual votes to stay organized.

With 19 seats, Republicans hold a majority in the 33-member Senate, but they are one vote short of the number necessary to conduct business. So the Republicans need at least one Democrat to be present before any voting can take place. Once the measure is brought to the floor, it needs 17 votes to pass.

Other lawmakers who fled sent messages over Twitter and issued written statements but did not disclose their location until hours later.

Erpenbach said the group had been in Illinois, but they dispersed by late afternoon.

As Republicans tried to begin Senate business around midday, observers in the gallery screamed "Freedom! Democracy! Unions!" Opponents cheered when a legislative leader announced there were not enough senators present to proceed.

Senate rules and the state constitution say absent members can be compelled to appear, but it does not say how.

The Senate planned to try again to convene Friday. The Assembly took no action Thursday but could take up the bill on Friday whether the Senate does or not, said John Jagler, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.

Elsewhere, some Democrats applauded the developments in Wisconsin as a long-awaited sign that their party was fighting back against the Republican wave created by November's midterm elections. Thursday's events were reminiscent of a 2003 dispute in Texas, where Democrats twice fled the state to prevent adoption of a redistricting bill designed to give Republicans more seats in Congress. The bill passed a few months later.

The drama in Wisconsin unfolded in a jam-packed Capitol. Madison police and the State Department of Administration estimated the crowd at 25,000 protesters, the largest number yet. Demonstrators stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the building's hallways, sat cross-legged across the floor and made it difficult to move from room to room. The scene vacillated from being festive to angry or sometimes just plain weird: One protester rode across the marble floors of the Capitol on a Segway. Another pitched a tent for an overnight stay.

Protesters clogged the hallway outside the Senate chamber, beating on drums, holding signs deriding Walker and pleading for lawmakers to kill the bill. Some others even demonstrated outside lawmakers' homes.

Hundreds of teachers joined the protest by calling in sick, forcing a number of school districts to cancel classes. Madison schools, the state's second-largest district, with 24,000 students, closed for a second day.

The proposal marks a dramatic shift for Wisconsin, which passed a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959 and was the birthplace of the national union representing all non-federal public employees.

In exchange for bearing more costs and losing bargaining leverage, public employees were promised no furloughs or layoffs. Walker has threatened to order layoffs of up to 6,000 state workers if the measure does not pass.