By Dennis Punzel
Their numbers may pale in comparison to the peak protest rallies of 2011, but the passion was much the same for those who showed up Saturday to demonstrate their opposition to right-to-work legislation in Wisconsin.
State officials pegged Saturday's crowd at between 2,500 and 3,000, a far cry from the 100,000 or so who turned out four years earlier at the peak of the protests against Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10 legislation that crippled most public-employee unions.
Saturday's rally, organized by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, was slightly larger than those earlier in the week as the right-to-work legislation made its way through the state Senate. The Assembly will consider the bill this week and it is expected to move on to Walker, who has said he will sign the bill.
Many of the protesters conceded that there is no hope of stopping the bill, but that didn't stop them from coming out in frigid temperatures to express their displeasure with Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
They listened to about an hour of speeches from a variety of labor leaders from the public and private sectors. Most then marched around Capitol Square, many carrying signs or banners, while some went inside the Capitol to warm up and join the Solidarity Singers in song.
Anna Wheelock drove three hours from Antigo to attend the protest, mostly as a matter of principle.
"I came knowing it's futile as far as stopping right-to-work," she said. "But we're getting pumped up. It's reminding us to keep fighting. The more they push back against us, the stronger we're going to become. We're doing everything we can to let America know that Wisconsin is not behind (Walker)."
A number of protesters made a point of highlighting their outrage at Walker comparing protesters to Islamic State terrorists in comments last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Liz O'Donnell, of Columbus, got right to the point, carrying a sign that read, "I am not a terrorist." Her husband, Bill, carried another that read "... me either." The couple, both veterans and state employees, were dismayed that Walker, a likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate, would say such a thing.
"We've got two kids in the service," Liz O'Donnell said. "We don't want Scott Walker leading them. That would be terror."
Bill O'Donnell acknowledged that the effort to stop right-to-work was a "lost cause," but said he's trying to take a longer-term view of the opposition to Walker's anti-labor efforts.
"This guy is going to sign the bill, there's no doubt," he said. "But in the darkest days of World War II there were people in the resistance fighting back. This is the resistance."
The right-to-work law would prohibit private employers from negotiating union contracts that require all workers in a union shop to pay union dues.
Republicans claim they want to give workers freedom of choice when it comes to joining unions.
Walker said last week that right-to-work laws aren't the only reason a business might move to Wisconsin, but it can be a "disqualifier" not to have the provision.
Democrats counter that the law is another attempt by the GOP to financially cripple the opposition party. Unions maintain that it's only fair that workers who benefit from union representation pay their fair share of the cost.
"The Republicans vilify anyone they perceive to be freeloaders," said Bruce McCulloch of Madison, a retired member of the electrical workers union. "And yet they're creating a whole new class of freeloaders. All this is is a thinly veiled attempt to de-fund the unions."
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said the bill "will establish workplace freedom" and improve conditions for business investment.
But McCulloch pointed out that the Wisconsin Contractors Coalition of more than 400 business leaders has said right-to-work would hurt their businesses.
"Where is the public outcry that we need this legislation?" he said.
Bill Carroll of Teamsters Local 344, one of the speakers Saturday, urged union members to become even more active to fight off future attacks.
"If we don't do this we will die a death of a thousand cuts, one scab at a time," Carroll said. "The labor movement is just that -- it's a movement. We've always got to be on our guard and fighting the interests that want to squash us."
Bob Christofferson, a retired UW-Madison employee who lives in Columbia County, brought his dog, Augie, to the protests in 2011 and they came together again Saturday. Christofferson carried a sign that read "Animals for the ethical treatment of people" and joked that Augie, a black lab mix, was not a terrorist. "He's not even a terrier-ist," he said.
But he maintained that there's nothing funny about the Walker administration's repeated attacks on labor. And he said he's appalled that Walker has capitalized on that to strengthen his appeal to GOP primary voters.
"It's an example of how he has a separate reality that he imagines he's some heroic figure for being able to take money from the paychecks of kindergarten teachers," he said. "He thinks that makes him some kind of world leader."
(c)2015 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)