14 Democratic senators flee Wisconsin, teachers strike for second day in a row

Feb 18 2011

By Jackie Larkin

MADISON, Wisconsin: Newly elected Governor Scott Walker and Senate Republicans are facing the wrath of many Wisconsinites this week, due to a controversial new piece of legislation introduced Tuesday focusing on reining in state spending.

Assembly Bill 11 was introduced by the Committee on Assembly Organization to help ease the state’s $136.7 [1] million budget crisis. The bill attempts to chip away at the deficit by dealing with state finances, and limiting collective bargaining rights, compensation and fringe benefits of public employees. [2]

In light of an almost certain Republican victory, all 14 Democratic senators fled the Capitol on Thursday morning, leaving the 19 Republicans one vote shy of a quorum. Ted Blazel, the Senate Sergeant at Arms, went looking for the missing legislators, but to no avail. Reports later confirmed the senators fled to a resort in Rockford, Illinois. [3] State police were dispatched to retrieve the senators, but are unable to do so because of their inability to cross state lines. [4]

Wisconsin State Senate Partisan Breakdown

Party As of February 2011
Democratic Party 14
Republican Party 19
Total 33

Questions concerning potential consequences for the 14 Democrats have also arisen. According to the Wisconsin Constitution, Article IVsections seven and eight, each house has the authority to discipline members or compel them to attend. No specifics are given as to the nature of the punishments.

Teachers in the metro Madison and Milwaukee areas have also fled their positions, and taken to the streets. Thousands of union teachers called in “sick” on Wednesday and Thursday, joining the masses of already gathered protesters in numbers estimated at around 20,000 in and around the State Capitol building. Due to the large number of absenses, many schools were forced to call off classes on Wednesday and Thursday, with many threatening to do the same on Friday. In the Madison area and surrounding communities, 21 districts closed their schools. [5] About four schools in the Milwaukee area closed, two of them canceling parent/teacher conferences.

With respect to state law, legal issues are surfacing with this week’s “sick out.” Wisconsin law prohibits teacher strikes, however, many argue for the legality of the protest, claiming it is not directed at an employer, disqualifying it as a strike. John Matthews, the Madison Teachers Inc. executive director, referred to the events “a political action,” not a strike. [6] Peter Davis, legal counsel with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, a commission which administers collective bargaining laws, thinks differently. “A strike includes any concerted work stoppage by municipal employees, any concerted interruption of operation of services, or any concerted refusal to work or perform normal duties for the purpose of enforcing demands on a municipal employer.” [6]

The bill, if passed, would prohibit future strikes of the same kind. The bill reads, “This bill authorizes a state agency to discharge any state employee who fails to report to work as scheduled for any three unexcused working days during a state of emergency or who participates in a strike, work stoppage, sit−down, stay−in, slowdown, or other concerted activities to interrupt the of operations or services of state government, including specifically purported mass resignations or sick calls. Under the bill, engaging in any of these actions constitutes just cause for discharge.” [2]

As of Thursday, nine people have been arrested in Madison as a result of the massive protest. [3]