Prank call fallout stokes Wisconsin union fight

MADISON, Wisconsin Thu Feb 24, 2011 11:07am EST

1 of 2. Protestors scream outside of the Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's office while he holds a fireside chat at the state Capitol in Madison Wisconsin February 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Darren Hauck

MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - The battle over a plan to curb public sector union power in Wisconsin took a bizarre turn on Wednesday when it was disclosed that the Republican governor told a prank caller he had considered luring Democrats who fled the state back under false pretenses.

In a phone conversation that a prankster recorded, Republican Governor Scott Walker suggested he hoped to lure to the Capitol the 14 Democratic Senators who fled to Illinois to stall his proposed legislation, which they say will cripple the unions.

A transcript of the call, posted on a website, also showed Walker had said he had "thought about" hiring outside agitators to disrupt the two weeks of demonstrations by thousands of union members against the bill.

In the call, Walker believed he was speaking with billionaire conservative David Koch. Walker's campaign received $43,000 last year from the Political Action Committee of Koch Industries, owned by Koch and his family. Koch is known for contributions to conservative causes.

Walker said he would tell the wayward Democrats, whose absence denied the Senate a quorum needed for a vote on his proposal, that he was "willing to sit down and talk" with them but "only ... if they came back to the Capitol with all 14 of them."

Walker said on the call that his legal advisers believed the presence of the 14 in the Capitol building alone, but not the Senate chamber, would allow the Republicans to declare a quorum in the chamber and pass the measure.

"If you heard I was going to talk to them that's the only reason why," Walker said, according to a transcript of the telephone call posted on website Wispolitics.

The prankster, Ian Murphy, published the transcript on the Buffalo Beast website.

Walker's office released a statement acknowledging the prank call, but defending his statements. "The Governor takes many calls everyday (sic)," the statement said.

In a speech to one of the state's largest business groups that drew standing ovations, Walker sounded a defiant tone, suggesting the opponents of his legislation to close a budget deficit were from outside Wisconsin.

BIG BUSINESS DONORS

"This is a battle with the big unions ... who are trying to come in and dominate this debate from out of this state," he told the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce trade group.

But his words to the caller are likely to fan criticism Wisconsin Republicans, led by Walker, are acting at the behest of big business campaign donors.

Wisconsin is in the center of a growing U.S. struggle over the power of public sector unions. If the majority Republicans prevail in Wisconsin, several other states could be inspired in efforts to take on the powerful public unions.

The changes sought by Walker would make state workers contribute more to health insurance and pensions, end government collection of union dues, let workers opt out of unions and require unions to hold recertification votes every year. Collective bargaining would be allowed only on wage increases up to the rate of inflation.

The governor says the changes are needed to close a budget deficit of about $3 billion over the next several years.

But Democratic lawmakers and unionized public employees said the measure is an attempt to bust the unions and choke off funding to organized labor, the single largest source of funding to the Democratic Party.

Inside the Capitol, the ranks of protesters were thinner than in recent days, though spirits were still high. When a group of more than 100 workers from Los Angeles walked into the rotunda, they were greeted with a roar of approval.

In Indiana, Democrats boycotting the state legislature appeared to score a victory when a "right to work" law that would restrict unions was put aside until next year.

Labor activists also gathered in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Nashville, Tennessee, to show solidarity with their Wisconsin counterparts.

(Writing by James Kelleher; additional reporting by Jeff Mayers, Susan Guyett, Mary Wisniewski, David Warner and Tim Gianni; Editing by Greg McCune and Philip Barbara)

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