MADISON, Wis. — The administration of Gov. Scott Walker abruptly locked out protesters from the Capitol on Monday morning, the latest gambit in the showdown between the new Republican governor and demonstrators rallying against his plan to strip public employee unions of almost all of their collective bargaining power.
About 60 demonstrators who had slept in the statehouse overnight remained inside as of noon Monday, and they banged drums, sang and danced in the rotunda. They had access to restrooms and, given the dwindling size of the group, appeared to have a decent supply of food. There was no indication that the police were preparing to arrest or eject them, and several said in interviews that they had no intention of leaving.
Protesters won a victory on Sunday when Mr. Walker’s administration reversed a plan to remove demonstrators who had been sleeping in the Capitol overnight for the last two weeks.
Many of the protesters left the building voluntarily on Sunday night, planning to return in the morning. But when they did, they found themselves barred from entering, the first time during the two-week demonstration, they said, that the building was locked during normal business hours. At least a hundred protesters stood outside one entrance, waiting to be let inside.
Protesters said they believed that the Walker administration was trying to slowly shrink the size of the protest inside the building before Tuesday’s scheduled unveiling of the governor’s budget proposal. “The governor is trying to force a conflict between us and the police,” said one protester still inside, Damon Terrell, a university student. “He wants us to feel caged so we’ll do something stupid, and then he wants the police to react.”
Peter Barca, the leader of the Democrats in the state Assembly, which is the lower house, called the closure “not acceptable.”
“Politicians may not always enjoy hearing what the citizens of this state have to say, but it is wrong to block elected officials from their constituents,” Mr. Barca said in a statement. “This silencing of public input is an unacceptable and disturbing trend during these budget debates.”
Mr. Walker’s administration issued statements on Monday about the Capitol closure that appeared to be conflicting. Early in the day, the Department of Administration, a cabinet-level agency headed by an appointee of Mr. Walker that oversees the Capitol police and the operation of the building, said that protesters would be allowed into the building Monday, though it added that “crowd size will be adjusted to accommodate the cleaning crews, the preparation for Tuesday’s joint legislative session and the number of protestors who remained in the building overnight.”
Then, two hours later, the department issued another statement saying that no protesters would be allowed back inside the Capitol until the demonstrators still there complied with a law enforcement request to remain in a designated area of the building.
“Officers in the building are continuing to work with those few individuals to gain their compliance,” the statement said.
“No additional protestors will be allowed into the building until this situation is resolved,” it added. “Once it is, law enforcement will continue to implement the procedures that were announced this morning.”
Later, a spokeswoman for the Department of Administration, Carla Vigue, said she expected the Capitol to reopen sometime Monday afternoon. She said she was “not at liberty” to discuss how protesters inside the Capitol had not complied with the police request.
Ms. Vigue said that while officials from the department were involved in the discussions, decisions were being made by the Capitol police.
On Sunday night, union officials, who had denounced the plan to close the Capitol overnight as an effort to silence critics, called the reversal a capitulation by Mr. Walker’s administration. “Cooler heads prevailed,” said Jim Palmer, the executive director of the 11,000-member Wisconsin Professional Police Association. “They had said they were going to clear the place out, and then they thought the better of it. Now it’s clear that law enforcement professionals are running the show.”
In recent days, the Capitol police have made it harder for protesters to spend the night by banning sleeping bags and containers of food from being brought inside and by gradually forcing people to move from upper floors to lower floors.
“They have been trying to condense us,” said Michela Torcaso, who has spent six nights in a row inside.
One demonstrator, Rabbi Renee Bauer, called the plan to close the building an effort to quiet people with little power.
“It is undemocratic to silence people’s voices,” she said. “This feels like it is about shutting down the demonstrators one step at a time.”
A Capitol police spokeswoman said Sunday that they would continue to urge people to leave so the Capitol could be cleaned, but that no one who insisted on staying the night would be detained or thrown out. She said she did not know whether Mr. Walker had been involved in the decision.
Appearing Sunday on the NBC program “Meet the Press,” the governor emphasized that he remained resolute and committed to his proposal to strip public employee unions of power. He urged the State Senate’s 14 Democrats, who have fled to Illinois to block a quorum and prevent the legislation from coming to a vote, to return to Madison. He also reiterated warnings that unless his bill is passed quickly, state employees will soon start getting layoff notices. Already, many teachers have been informed by their school districts that they face layoffs.
Mr. Walker, who was elected in November, has said the elimination of most of the state employee unions’ collective bargaining power is important to saving the state money in the future.
“If we do not get these changes and the Senate Democrats don’t come back, we’re going to be forced to make up the savings in layoffs, and that to me is just unacceptable,” he said on the television show. He has said that state agencies will have to begin preparing this coming week to send layoff notices to 1,500 state workers if the impasse is not resolved.
Mr. Walker said that past governors and legislatures had “kicked the can.”
“They’ve taken one-time fixes to push the budget problems off into the future,” he added. “We can’t do that. We’re broke.”
Democrats and labor leaders say that Mr. Walker is using the budget crisis to eviscerate unions, traditional Republican opponents, and that stripping unions of bargaining power will have no effect on the current fiscal crisis.
They point out that the state’s largest unions have already agreed to Mr. Walker’s plan to impose what amounts to sizable take-home pay cuts on state workers by diverting more of their paychecks to fund pension and health care plans. Officials say that part of the legislation will reduce take-home pay by 6 percent to 8 percent for typical state workers, and by more than 10 percent for many lower-paid employees.
Categories: Economy, Government, Labor, U.S. News, Workers Struggle
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