The capitol building in Madison represents a story of two sides.
Supporters of Gov. Scott Walker and his budget repair bill line the back of the building. “Walker for Governor” signs are displayed as the words “pass the bill” echo through the air.
The bill’s opponents, Democrats and union members, reside in front of the building. Here, public workers and teachers hold signs as they wait to offer personal testimonies inside.
It’s been this way in Wisconsin’s capitol since last week, when protests began and 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to avoid voting on the budget repair bill. If passed, the bill would require most public workers to pay half their pension costs and would strip unions of the right to collectively bargain.
The Democrats’ absence spurred others to take similar action. Monday marked the second day that Madison and Milwaukee school districts were closed for a “sick out,” meaning too many teachers called in sick for schools to remain open.
Many of those teachers have been protesting in Madison.
Jeff “JJ” Johnson, art teacher at South Division High School in Milwaukee and a Wisconsin director for the National Education Association, has been in Madison for most of the past week. He said there are teachers from all across the state and Illinois there protesting.
“Everything has been peaceful so far,” Johnson said. “People are respectful, the police are doing a great job and we hope it’s having an effect.”
Johnson also said he recently spoke with State Rep. John Richards (D-Milwaukee) of the 19th Assembly District, who left the state. According to Johnson, Richards said the political climate is changing and momentum needs to keep swinging forward.
Polly Imme, a teacher in Siren, Wis., said she spoke with one of the Republican senators asking if the rallies were making a difference. The senator told Imme there has been no effect on the representatives. He said the protesting has actually made them consider adding police and firefighters to the bill, who are currently exempt from it.
Last Tuesday, Mahlon Mitchell, state president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, said in a press release that firefighters were unable to stand aside as legislation moved forward against the rights of other public employee unions.
On Saturday, Mitchell spoke against the bill, reminding union members to maintain a united front.
“We cannot let our message die,” he said. “What happens here affects the rest of the world. Firefighters support the union.”
Though union workers are the most expressive regarding their opposition to Walker’s bill, others protest the bill regardless of whether it fits their political stance. Pete Skaar, a conservative who works for the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles, disagrees with the bill.
“I have conservative ideals, but am appalled by what’s going on here,” Skaar said. “This is an example of taking advantage of a crisis. … Walker is doing the same thing Obama did with health care.”
Although there seems to be more protesters against the governor, there are still many who support him. Mike and Luanne Romauld traveled to the capitol to demonstrate their Republican point of view.
“Walker is a man of strong resolve,” Mike Romauld said. “However, the Republican senators in there might be getting a bit squishy.”
Also in support of the bill was a man named Jim, who did not disclose his last name. He said accumulating more debt is not an option.
“The people of Wisconsin duly elected Scott Walker as our governor,” Jim said. “He’s doing exactly what we ordered him to do. He’s not looking at the polls or his popularity … he’s getting things done.”
In a response to “what needs to be done,” Walker’s office released a statement today on how collective bargaining fiscally impacts government. The release says that if school districts enroll in the state employee plan instead of the union run plan, it will save up to $68 million per year.
The release also addresses overtime pay and claims the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association tried to use collective bargaining to pay for Viagra.
Cullen Werwie, spokesman for Walker, used the release to call Democratic senators back to Wisconsin.
“Instead of stimulating the hospitality sector of Illinois’ economy, Senate Democrats should come back to Madison, debate the bill, cast their vote and help get Wisconsin’s economy back on track,” he said.