Wisconsin protesters, occupying the statehouse in opposition to Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to curb collective-bargaining rights, agreed to leave peacefully late yesterday for the first time since Feb. 15.
About 50 protesters filed out of the Capitol just before 10 p.m., hours after Dane County Circuit Court Judge John Albert issued an interim order declaring unconstitutional the Department of Administration’s policy of curtailing public access to the building that it began early this week. The order also made it a violation of state law for the demonstrators to remain inside the Capitol, and called for a return to normal business hours beginning March 7.
The crowd huddled in the rotunda erupted in cheers after hearing the news from Peg A. Lautenschlager, former state attorney general who argued the case on behalf of the Wisconsin State Employees Union. The demonstrators hugged, gathered their belongings, thanked officials and exited onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, singing “Solidarity Forever.”
“I feel like it’s a victory, but it’s one battle and there’s many more,” said Harriet Rowan, a 23-year-old senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Rowan, like many of her companions, vowed to return today.
Walker’s “budget-repair bill” increases what public employees excluding police and firefighters pay for health care and pension benefits, and limits collective bargaining to wages. Walker and fellow Republicans swept to power in the November elections, dominating both chambers.
The Assembly on Feb. 25 passed the measure, which has sparked protests across the U.S. It remains stalled in the Senate, whose 14 Democrats decamped for Illinois last month to prevent a vote.
If Senate Democrats don’t return, Walker said he may begin sending notices to government unions today warning them that members will be fired within 30 days.
“We’re obviously seeing a transition, but the end result of the judge’s order will be greater access to this building and more importantly, citizens’ ability to be present when important decisions are being made,” Representative Fred Clark, a Democrat from Baraboo, said in an interview.