A Coup in Wisconsin: How the Governor Got His Way

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Darren Hauck / Reuters

Protesters take over the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison after the Republican-controlled senate, without Democrats present, abruptly voted to eliminate almost all collective bargaining for most public workers

Updated: March 11, 2011, 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time

"The rich have gotten much richer," bellowed Jesse Jackson Jr. amid the rumble of cheering voices, horns and maracas. "Yeah!" roared back the crowd of at least 10,000 protesters who had gathered in Madison, Wis., Thursday morning.

"It's about the rights of workers," Jackson continued. "The rights of workers," repeated the crowd. "The rights of women," Jackson said. "The rights of women," repeated the crowd.

He did have one word of caution, though. "Remain nonviolent, remain disciplined," Jackson said later in his address. It is the mantra that has been repeated in Wisconsin since Valentine's Day, when the state government began its face-off against huge numbers of protesters outraged by what they see as Republican governor Scott Walker's attempt to deprive labor unions of one of their key weapons: collective bargaining.

To the crowds that have gathered, Walker is the stubborn king faced with a feudal uprising of peasants. The governor had stood his ground on his "budget-repair bill" (which included the antiunion measure) even as farmers, firemen, machinists, teachers and policemen joined demonstrations and pickets against him. But then, on Wednesday night, Walker and his allies performed a cunning bit of legislative sleight of hand, slicing off the measure that would end collective bargaining from the larger budget-repair bill. That apparently gave the Republican state senators, who form the majority, the right to pass the union-busting law without the quorum they did not have (Democratic senators had fled to Illinois to deprive them of that). And that's what the Republicans did, each declaring their ayes to go ahead despite loud objections by startled observers that the proceedings were illegal.

And that's what brought the crowds back to surround the state capitol building. Some climbed in windows, chanting, demanding to be let in. "There was no one and then all of a sudden there was everyone in a matter of minutes," says Marveen Phelps, who rushed back to the capitol as soon as she heard of the Republican feint. The highways to Madison were jammed all morning with people trying to join the protests.

On Wednesday night, however, the protesters got some sympathy from Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, who oversees Madison's county and who recently proclaimed that his deputies weren't "palace guards." Mahoney had the capitol doors opened Wednesday night to allow the protesters inside. However, within the capitol, state troopers from other counties were standing guard — the governor and the Republican senators well aware that Dane County police were sympathetic to the protesters' cause.

A former union leader for the Wisconsin Professional Police Association (WPPA), Mahoney tells TIME he could not "officially give his opinion" on the controversy. But, he says, "I've worked demonstrations before, but I've never seen anything like this in my 31 years. We are seeing democracy in action, people engaging in their government, making their issues known. It's been an outstanding demonstration for the state of democracy. I'm very proud that the people of Wisconsin are engaged in their government and shown the rest of the world how democracy works."

But by Thursday, the rotunda of the capital was once again closed to protesters, some of whom were dragged out by state troopers — not local police. At exactly 3:42 p.m., after two hours of discussion, the state assembly passed the same measure by a vote of 53 to 42. The protesters began chanting "Shame! Shame! Shame!" and "Recall!" The Republicans made a quick escape, while the Democrats lingered among thousands of cheering constituents who shouted thank-yous and vowed for a recall of politicians who are eligible for removal after a year in office. "Look at this sea of gray hair and students," said recently elected Democratic representative Chris Danou, pointing to the crowd in the street. "These are middle-class working people. This is not some hippie protest. I'm sure they will remember when it is time to vote." There will be another opportunity for the protesters to display their anger. A huge rally, "Tractorcade," is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday. Hundreds of farmers, all wearing green, plan to drive their tractors to the capitol in solidarity with the pro-union demonstrators. But the law was passed. All it needs is Walker's signature.

Update: Governor Walker is scheduled to sign the measure into law on Thursday afternoon.

"I needed an outlet for my outrage," says Jane Schneider, 46, who works for the City of Madison. It is a day after the Senate coup and she is explaining the sign she had placed on her friend Amanda Jones' baby carrier. It read: "Scott Walker and 18 Wis. GOP senators are Big Poopy Pants." Jones, a teacher visiting from Winston-Salem, N.C., used to attend graduate school in Madison. On Thursday, she walked around the capitol with her stroller and her friend — while her husband tried to enter the capitol. (The building's rotunda had since been closed to protesters.) A pair of 75-year-old retired teachers, Marveen Phelps and her husband Russell, carried a sign that said, "Retired but never too retired to support human rights." Says Marveen Phelps: "I saw a sign this morning that sums all of us up: 'We Are a Gentle Angry People.'"

Until Wednesday night, the crowds had thinned after the first big outbursts in February. Still, there have been diehards who have never really left. Dentist Dr. Kathleen Kelly is one of them. She doesn't belong to a union and has seven employees in her office. But every day since Feb. 15, she's taken her daily ritual of walking a mile outside to a circular path around the capitol, marching during her lunch break, repeating it again after her practice closes at 5 p.m. and again on the weekends. "I grew up in Madison," says Kelly, 63. "This is offensive. I have a strong belief in rights of workers, health care for everyone and good schools for our children. These are all the things that he's cutting, so, yes, I'm a supporter."

Gera Bodley, 49, who works in the University of Wisconsin's physics department as a payroll and benefits employee, has worked in time to protest by supplementing her 30-minute lunch break with an hour from her allotted vacation time. Before the protests began, her lunch break consisted of a peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich at her desk and messages with friends over her Yahoo! e-mail account. Now, she takes the No. 3 bus over to the capitol, quickly noshing on her sandwich during the seven-minute ride to allow more time to protest during her extended hour-and-a-half lunch break. It has cost her nearly a week of vacation time. Sporting a long puffy Green Bay Packers–green parka by Land's End, Bodley jokes, politely apologizing for being a "little Wisconsin" in her warm but less than fashionable gear while holding a sign declaring that "Union Blood Is Thicker Than Tea."

"This is a movement that's not going to stop," says Kelly the dentist. "They are going to keep coming out day after day. They aren't going to give up and the governor can expect recall."