By James Kelleher
MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - Police physically removed some protesters, locked the Wisconsin state Capitol and cordoned off nearby streets on Thursday, forcing Republicans to delay the start of a legislative session to approve controversial curbs on public sector union powers.
Several thousand demonstrators furious about the proposal to eliminate most public sector union collective bargaining rights massed at the state Capitol to disrupt a session of the state Assembly planned to start on Thursday morning.
A group of about two dozen protesters who refused to leave the building "linked elbows" and were physically removed one-at-a-time by police, Wispolitics.com reported.
The Capitol remained closed to the general public and streets around the building were blocked.
Facing chaos in the Capitol building, Republicans delayed the start of the session so that the Capitol building could be "properly secured," Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said in a statement. The session on Thursday was planned to give final approval to the measure.
Protests against the union proposal have been remarkably peaceful through three weeks of demonstrations and not a single arrest was made before Thursday, police said.
An estimated 6,000 protesters pushed into the Capitol building on Wednesday night after the controversial union measures, blocked in budget legislation for three weeks by the absence of Senate Democrats, were passed separately by majority Senate Republicans and sent to the Assembly for a final vote.
Some 200 protesters, despite being told they were violating a court order, spent the night in the Capitol. There were no reports of arrests overnight. Hundreds of protesters staged a sit-in for more than two weeks to protest the union curbs.
The last time the Assembly debated the bill, the session stretched for more than 60 hours. But Republicans hold a strong enough majority in the Assembly to pass the bill without need of parliamentary maneuvers seen on Wednesday in the Senate.
If the Assembly passes the bill, it will go to newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker for signature.
Despite the delay in the start of the session, Walker said that he expected the state Assembly to approve the measure later on Thursday.
"We have shown we can have passionate debate. We are civil in the state of Wisconsin . We respect the law," Walker told a press conference in Milwaukee.
Critics accused Walker and the Republicans of flouting the law by using a legislative maneuver to ram the draft law through the state Senate on Wednesday evening on short notice and without debate.
Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan called the Senate proceedings "a kangaroo Legislature."
What began a month ago as a Republican effort in one small U.S. state to balance the budget has now turned into a confrontation with unions that could be the biggest since then President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers nearly 30 years ago.
Republican Walker insists the limits are needed to help the state's cash-strapped municipalities deal with a projected $1.27 billion drop in aid over the next two years from the state, struggling to close its own $3.6 billion budget gap.
All 14 Democratic senators left the state on February 17 to deny the Republicans, who have 19 Senate members, the quorum of 20 needed on a budget vote. But that ended abruptly on Wednesday when Republicans stripped out the sections that involved appropriating funds.
In an 18-to-1 vote, the Senate Republicans approved the restrictions on collective bargaining.
Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, the lone no vote, warned his GOP colleagues: "This issue is not going away."
"In 30 minutes, 18 state senators un-did 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten," Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller said.
Miller and other Senate members said they would now be coming back to the state and continuing the fight.
The Senate bill severely restricts collective bargaining for tends of thousands of the state's public worker unions and increases their health care and pension contributions.
The measure has prompted massive demonstrations in the state capital by the bill's opponents and triggered a wave of recall campaigns targeting both the governor's supporters and opponents in the legislature.
On Wednesday night in the Capitol, the ground floor and first floor appeared nearly as full as they were during the first days of the demonstrations more than three weeks ago, and protesters stayed in the Capitol overnight, defiantly chanting "recall" and "Whose house? Our house!"
Outside the Assembly chamber, Barca allowed protesters to fill out forms listing themselves as witnesses to a violation of the state's open meetings laws, stemming from the Republicans' earlier conference committee meeting.
The AFL-CIO union said Senate Republicans and Walker had exercised "the nuclear option to ram through their bill attacking Wisconsin's working families in the dark of night" and called for rallies today in Madison and around the state.
If the plan is approved as expected in Wisconsin, a number of other states where Republicans swept to victory in the 2010 elections could follow. Legislatures including those in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Idaho, Tennessee, Kansas and New Hampshire have already been working on union curbs of their own.
The stakes are high for labor because more than a third of U.S. public employees such as teachers, police and civil service workers belong to unions while only 6.9 percent of private sector workers are unionized. Unions are the biggest single source of funding for the Democratic party.
(Reporting by Jeff Mayers. Writing by James B. Kelleher. Editing by Peter Bohan)