Wisconsin protests: Fewer, sleep-deprived, still determined

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2011 - 4:36 AM

Day 6: Neither side in the Wisconsin showdown over public employees' labor rights shows signs of giving up.

MADISON, WIS. - As she prepared for yet another night of sleeping on the cold marble floors of Wisconsin's State Capitol, a bleary-eyed Lisa Brown realized Sunday that the days of protesting were catching up with her.

It was going to be her fifth straight night sleeping in the stuffy, echoing halls. She had attempted to freshen up with a bar of soap in a bathroom sink and a change of clothes from a Goodwill store, but she wasn't sure it was working. "This is what democracy smells like," she said, only half grinning as 4,900 demonstrators chanted a similar phrase in the rotunda.

With a winter storm approaching, Sunday's smaller crowd came mostly from within Wisconsin and described themselves as hard core. On the sixth day of protests, they were left to wonder how the government-union stalemate would end.

Republicans upped the pressure on 14 Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois to return home and vote on the controversial budget bill at the heart of the dispute. Gov. Scott Walker said the 14 minority Democrats who left Madison on Thursday were failing to do their jobs by "hiding out" in Illinois. And Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said his chamber will meet Tuesday to act on nonspending bills and confirm some of the governor's appointees even if the Democrats don't show up.

Senate Democrats said they will stand firm in their opposition to the bill, which would take away the right of most public employees to collectively bargain on benefits and working conditions.

Union calls for return to class

Also Sunday, Mary Bell, president of Wisconsin's teachers' union, called on teachers to return to work rather than continue protests that have shut down public schools across the state. She said unions will agree to cuts in health care and retirement benefits, and that it was time for Walker to compromise.

In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton bashed what he called "drastic" attempts to "steal" employees' collective bargaining rights in a "divisive political strategy."

Speaking on WCCO-TV, the DFL governor said, "Minnesota is not going to become a right-to-work state if I'm governor.

"People have a right to bargain collectively," he said. "That's an earned right over the last century in this country, and for somebody to just unilaterally take that away -- just steal it away from people -- is simply not going to happen in Minnesota."

Pride and pizza

Outside the Wisconsin State Capitol, well-bundled union-supporting protesters marched on slushy sidewalks. A passing line of snowplows blared horns in solidarity.

First-grade teacher Jean Gavin, from Verona Area Schools, walked in the rain with a sign that read "I (heart) Dem 14" supporting the senators who left the state. The protests are providing civics lessons for her students, she said, adding that the students discussed on Friday why schools had been closed in her district on Thursday.

The larger crowds remained warm and dry inside, though, where demonstrators rallied with drums and loudspeakers in the Capitol rotunda.

Law enforcement officers continued to stand guard. "It's been very friendly," said a relaxed DNR warden supervisor Jeremy Plautz, who worked there each day last week.

"It gets loud and the drums really don't stop," he said. But like many of his uniformed colleagues, he found a way to mitigate the volume: ear plugs.

As crowds chanted through the afternoon, some supporters took time to observe. Rich Hoard, a suburban Madison bartender who doesn't belong to a union but said he supports the teachers' union, wove through the crowd with his 7-year-old daughter, Rebekah, pointing out protest signs.

"I think it's great. I love all the signs about democracy in action," he said. It was a great opportunity for Rebekah to learn young. "It won't be long and they'll be voting," he said.

In the hallways off the rotunda, some protesters tried to nap despite the volume. They covered themselves with jackets and blankets. Others sat on steps and benches, their eyes transfixed on smartphones; Twitter messages have been used to recruit volunteers and organize rallies.

6,500 slices so far

Meanwhile, pizza delivery carriers also bounced through the crowds. Many protesters have been fueling themselves with granola bars, bagels and other donated food. Ian's Pizza on State Street, about a block from the Capitol, had been taking donations from all over the world -- including Egypt -- and delivering the paid-for pies to protesters.

On Sunday afternoon, a worker at the restaurant announced over a loudspeaker "6,500 slices donated thus far."

Brown, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, said staying was worth the discomfort. She plans to be a teacher and came to support friends already working in the school system, she said.

Her backpack stuffed with a quilt she made, Brown planned to sleep at least part of the night on a thin camping mattress that a fellow protester was sharing.

"It's totally worth it," she said. "This is incredible."

The AP contributed to this report Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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