On Tuesday morning, over a thousand passionate Wisconsinites signed up to speak at a legislative hearing on Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill. In the Capitol Rotunda, the huge crowd waved placards to protest Walker's plan for gutting public employees' collective bargaining rights and making them pay more for their benefits.
Even with tensions running high since Walker announced his proposal last week, the protesters were remarkably well behaved. Their signs were reasonable, too. "Respectfully disagree, Scott," said one. "Stop, collaborate, listen," said another. Walker had mentioned calling in the National Guard in case of labor unrest, but it's hard to imagine cracking heads over such a sensible response from public employees.
The throng in the Rotunda watched the hearing on video screens and signed blue slips to get their names in the queue to speak. Mike Huebsch, secretary of the Department of Administration, opened the proceedings with a bloodless recitation of the budget bill's virtues from Walker's point of view. That didn't go over well with the crowd, who booed Huebsch's repeated calls for "a return to the fundamental principles of frugality."
A dreadlocked women standing next to me -- Michelle Dickinson of the UW Extension -- snorted at Huebsch's slogans. "As a single mom, I can't afford the 10% pay cut," she told me. "I'm going to have to go into foreclosure."
Dickinson believes that Wisconsin's budget would be better repaired by "stopping corporate welfare." Similarly, Mary Kelly, who works in the Department of Corrections, suggested saving money "from the top down."
"I think Walker should start getting money from the wealth, not the people who are at the bottom," she said.
John Kempfert, who works at Dodge Correctional Institution, thinks targeting state workers for budget cuts is bound to backfire. "It's a Band-Aid now," he says, "but there'll be less spending. People are talking about putting their houses and cars up for sale and declaring bankruptcy."
Corrections worker Jeanna Powell worries that Walker's attempt to weaken unions will leave employees unprotected. "Having a union means fair pay for us women," she says. "I was never paid fairly until I joined a union."
I asked several people if public employees were talking about a strike to combat Walker's changes. Most of them shook their heads.
"People will just look for other jobs," Kempfert said.