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Demonstrators Can Continue Overnight Stays in Wisconsin Capitol

by Richard A. Oppel Jr

MADISON, Wis. — In a victory — at least a symbolic one — for Wisconsin’s public employee unions, the Capitol authorities announced on Sunday that demonstrators could continue their all-night sleepovers in the building and would not be forcibly ejected or arrested.

Hundreds of protesters have been sleeping in the Capitol in Madison, Wis. A state agency had ordered a stop to the practice and the building cleared on Sunday. Just one day earlier, the state agency that oversees the Capitol police had said that the overnight protests, which have occurred continuously for almost two weeks and have been the heart and soul of the demonstrations in Madison, would cease on Sunday. The agency is led by an appointee of Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, whose plan to strip public employee unions of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights has led to huge rallies in opposition, with as many as 70,000 demonstrators marching around the Madison Statehouse.

Union officials, who had denounced the plan to close the Capitol overnight as an effort to silence critics, called the reversal a capitulation by Mr. Walker’s administration.

“Cooler heads prevailed,” said Jim Palmer, the executive director of the 11,000-member Wisconsin Professional Police Association. “They had said they were going to clear the place out, and then they thought the better of it. Now it’s clear that law enforcement professionals are running the show.”

Officials from both the governor’s office and the Department of Administration, the cabinet-level state agency that had previously called for closing the Capitol, could not be reached for comment.

In recent days, the Capitol police have made it harder for protesters to spend the night by banning sleeping bags and containers of food from being brought inside and by gradually forcing people to move from upper floors to lower floors. “They have been trying to condense us,” said Michela Torcaso, who has spent six nights in a row inside.

One demonstrator, Rabbi Renee Bauer, called the plan to close the building an effort to quiet people with little power.

“It is undemocratic to silence people’s voices,” she said. “This feels like it is about shutting down the demonstrators one step at a time.”

A Capitol police spokeswoman said Sunday that they would continue to urge people to leave so the Capitol could be cleaned, but that no one who insisted on staying the night would be detained or thrown out. She said she did not know whether Mr. Walker had been involved in the decision.

Appearing Sunday on the NBC program “Meet the Press,” the governor emphasized that he remained resolute and committed to his proposal to strip public employee unions of power. He urged the State Senate’s 14 Democrats, who have fled to Illinois to block a quorum and prevent the legislation from coming to a vote, to return to Madison. He also reiterated warnings that unless his bill is passed quickly, state employees will soon start getting layoff notices. Already, many teachers have been informed by their school districts that they face layoffs.

Mr. Walker, who was elected in November, has said the elimination of most of the state employee unions’ collective bargaining power is important to saving the state money in the future.

“If we do not get these changes and the Senate Democrats don’t come back, we’re going to be forced to make up the savings in layoffs, and that to me is just unacceptable,” he said on the television show. He has said that state agencies will have to begin preparing this coming week to send layoff notices to 1,500 state workers if the impasse is not resolved.

Mr. Walker said that past governors and legislatures had “kicked the can.”

“They’ve taken one-time fixes to push the budget problems off into the future,” he added. “We can’t do that. We’re broke.”

Democrats and labor leaders say that Mr. Walker is using the budget crisis to eviscerate unions, traditional Republican opponents, and that stripping unions of bargaining power will have no effect on the current fiscal crisis.

They point out that the state’s largest unions have already agreed to Mr. Walker’s plan to impose what amounts to sizable take-home pay cuts on state workers by diverting more of their paychecks to fund pension and health care plans. Officials say that part of the legislation will reduce take-home pay by 6 percent to 8 percent for typical state workers, and by more than 10 percent for many lower-paid employees.

All day Sunday the drama built inside the Capitol as about 1,000 demonstrators crowded around the rotunda on the first and second floors in anticipation of a showdown. Some speakers urged people to leave at 4 p.m., which is when the Department of Administration had called for the building to be closed. But most of the speakers urged people to not to leave — but to remain peaceful and polite toward the police officers inside the building.

Indeed, there appeared to be little appetite among the police officers to forcibly remove anyone. While the Capitol police were in charge, most of the officers inside were drawn from the ranks of departments around the state, and several said that since none of the protesters were behaving violently or appeared to be a threat to others, there was little reason to detain or eject them.

Union leaders say one of the strengths of the demonstrations has been that despite harsh language and personal attacks directed at Mr. Walker, the protesters had been loud but nonviolent.

As the 4 p.m. deadline passed, a large number of demonstrators left, but at least several hundred chose to remain behind, mostly on the second floor. The police were not letting anybody else inside, and people who went downstairs were not allowed to return upstairs. But otherwise they stood by as demonstrators chanted slogans like “Peaceful protests! Peaceful protests!” and “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”

Dan Barry contributed reporting.

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