Teachers, students, and prison guards by the thousands made their way to the Wisconsin Capitol on Wednesday to fight a move to strip government workers of union rights in the first state to grant them more than a half-century ago.
The Statehouse filled with as many as 10,000 demonstrators who chanted, sang the national anthem and beat drums for hours. The noise in the rotunda rose to the level of a chainsaw, and many Madison teachers joined the protest by calling in sick in such numbers that the district — the state's second-largest — had to cancel classes.
The new Republican governor, Scott Walker, is seeking passage of the nation's most aggressive anti-union proposal, which was moving swiftly through the GOP-led Legislature.
If adopted, it would mark 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.
As protesters chanted "Recall Walker now!" outside the governor's office, Walker insisted he has the votes to pass the measure, which he says is needed to help balance a projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and avoid widespread layoffs.
Walker said he appreciated the concerns of protesters, but taxpayers "need to be heard as well." He said he would not do anything to "fundamentally undermine the principles" of the bill.
"We're at a point of crisis," the governor said.
A budget committee was expected to consider the proposal later Wednesday. At one point during the protests, Republicans said they intended to offer substantive changes, but they soon revealed that all the core elements would remain.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the bill would be modified to include an extension of grievance procedures for employees who lose bargaining rights. Other changes were to be revealed before the committee vote.
The full Legislature could begin voting on it as early as Thursday.
In an interview with Milwaukee television station WTMJ, President Barack Obama said he was monitoring the situation in Madison and acknowledged the need for budget cuts. But, he said, pushing public employees away from the bargaining table "seems like more of an assault on unions."
As the bill appeared ready to advance, tensions rose in the Capitol. Police roamed the halls, restricted access to some rooms and stood watch outside the governor's office.
In addition to eliminating collective bargaining rights, the legislation would also make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage — increases that Walker calls "modest" compared with those in the private sector.
More than 13,000 protesters gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday for a 17-hour public hearing on the measure. Thousands more came Wednesday.
"I'm fighting for my home and my career," said Virginia Welle, a 30-year-old teacher at Chippewa Falls High School. She said she and her husband, who is also a teacher, each stand to lose $5,000 a year in higher pension and health care contributions.
Welle said she could never get that money back since the unions would be unable to bargain over benefits under Walker's plan.
The protests have been larger and more sustained than any in Madison in decades. Dozens of protesters spent the night in sleeping bags on the floor of the Rotunda. A noise monitor in the Rotunda registered 105 decibels at midday Wednesday — about as loud as a power mower or chainsaw.
Beyond the Statehouse, more than 40 percent of the 2,600 union-covered teachers and school staff in Madison called in sick. No widespread sickouts were reported at any other school.
Prisons, which are staffed by unionized guards who would lose their bargaining rights under the plan, were operating without any unusual absences, according to a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.
Walker has said he would call out the National Guard to staff the prisons if necessary. A union leader for prison workers did not immediately return messages.
Scott Spector, a lobbyist for AFT-Wisconsin, which represents about 17,000 public employees, said the demonstrations were having an effect on lawmakers.
Union representatives were attempting to sway key moderates for a compromise, but Democrats said the bill would be tough to stop. Democrats lost the governor's office and control of the Legislature in the November midterm elections.
"The Legislature has pushed these employees off the cliff, but the Republicans have decided to jump with them," said Sen. Bob Jauch, one of 14 Democrats in the 33-member chamber.
While other states have proposed bills curtailing labor rights, Wisconsin's measure is the most aggressive anti-union move yet to solve state budget problems. It would end collective bargaining for state, county and local workers, except for police, firefighters and the state patrol.