Thousands of protesters rushed to the state Capitol on Wednesday night as word spread of the hastily called votes that sent Gov. Scott Walker's controversial bill limiting collective bargaining rights for public workers speeding through the Legislature.
Shortly after 8 p.m., hundreds of protesters gathered outside the locked King Street entrance to the Capitol, chanting "Break down the door!" and "General strike!"
Moments later, police ceded control of the State Street doors and allowed the crowd to surge inside. The area outside the Assembly, which is scheduled to take the bill up at 11 a.m. Thursday, was jammed with protesters who chanted, "We're not leaving. Not this time."
Some said they planned to spend the night in the Capitol. Last week, a Dane County Circuit Court judge ordered dozens of protesters who had been occupying the Capitol for more than two weeks to leave.
It's not clear why police abandoned efforts to limit access to the Capitol Wednesday night, but Department of Administration spokesman Tim Donovan said "windows have been broken" to get in. He said he could not immediately provide specifics.
Protesters jammed three floors of the Capitol and packed the bridges that connect the four wings of the Capitol, prompting alarm by police and others that those parts of the building might collapse.
Some union leaders interviewed Wednesday night at the Madison Labor Temple indicated that strikes — which are illegal in Wisconsin for public-employee unions — are possible.
"Senate Republicans have exercised the nuclear option to ram through their bill attacking Wisconsin's working families in the dark of night," said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO. "Tonight's events have demonstrated they will do or say anything to pass their extreme agenda that attacks Wisconsin's working families."
The budget-repair bill had been stalled in the Senate since the body's 14 Democrats fled Wisconsin Feb. 17 in a desperate gambit to slow or stop passage of the measure, which affects about 175,000 public employees.
Representatives of the union that represents blue-collar, technical and safety officers at UW-Madison said the possibility of a general strike has been discussed. "Anything is possible," said Local 171 steward Carl Aniel.
Aniel said only locals can call a strike, and it would be up to each one to do so individually.
"It's clear that Walker is not interested in any sort of negotiations. He's leaving the working class no other options," Aniel said.
Anne Habel, a steward with AFSCME Local 171, said Wednesday's action will further inflame the unions, which have staged daily protests since Walker introduced his budget repair bill in mid-February. "Every time something happens, people become more militant," Habel said."
Ted Lewis, a union representative for Rock Valley Education Professionals, led protesters in a cheer referring to the effort to recall the governor, in office for just two tumultuous months.
"Scott, you don't remember me," Lewis chanted, "but I can recall you."
State Journal reporters Sandy Cullen, Steven Verburg, Ron Seely, Dan Simmons, Devin Rose, Patricia Simms and Dee J. Hall contributed to this report.