MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin lawmakers are prepared to pass a momentous bill that would strip government workers of nearly all collective bargaining rights over the loud objections of thousands of teachers, students and prison guards who packed the Capitol for two days of protests.
The nation's most aggressive anti-union proposal has been speeding through the Legislature since Republican Gov. Scott Walker introduced it a week ago. After clearing a major legislative hurdle Wednesday night, it was headed to votes in the Senate and Assembly.
Up to 20,000 people filled the Statehouse on Wednesday, cheering, singing and chanting in demonstrations unlike any seen in Madison for decades. Their numbers included many families and teachers from the Madison school district, which was forced to close after more than 40 percent of its 2,600-union covered employees called in sick.
The Legislature's budget committee passed the bill on a partisan vote just before midnight. Several opponents in the crowd broke into tears as Democrats on the committee encouraged them not to give up the fight.
"I'm sad. Scared. Disappointed," said Kelly Dzurick, a 31-year-old fifth-grade teacher in Elkhorn, who came to the Capitol on Wednesday night. "Nobody's listening to what people say."
The head of the 98,000-member statewide teachers union called on all Wisconsin residents to come to the Capitol on Thursday for the votes in the Senate and Assembly. Several districts, including Madison for a second day, said they would close.
"Our goal is not to close schools, but to instead to remain vigilant in our efforts to be heard," said Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell.
If passed by the Legislature, the move 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.