MADISON (Reuters) - When the two sides in Wisconsin’s bitter battle over the future of the state’s unionized public employees converged on the Capitol on Saturday for dueling rallies, the fear was trouble would break out.
Instead, the day was marked by a surprising civility when the shouting stopped and the one-on-one conversations began.
The slogans they had chanted had highlighted the stark differences that separated them.
“Kill the bill!” cried the opponents of Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to cut the pay and benefits of unionized public workers and sharply reduce their collective bargaining rights. “Pass the bill!” supporters of the proposal shouted back.
But aside from a few outsiders — like AFL-CIO chief Rich Trumka here to back opponents of the measure, and Andrew Breitbart, the conservative provocateur who appeared at the Tea Party-backed rally to support Walker — the people on hand were from Wisconsin itself and these neighbors were remarkably civil despite their sharp disagreements.
Wisconsonites are united, even in times like this, by many things, including a love of University of Wisconsin, Madison, athletics and the program’s strutting mascot Bucky the Badger; a devotion to the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers NFL football team; and, of course, a love of beer, brought to the state by its German settlers and honed by brewers whose names are part of American history: Pabst, Schlitz, Miller and Blatz.
So when the opposing rallies ended here on Saturday, many of the demonstrators retired to the numerous bars in the Capitol’s shadow, like The Old Fashioned Tavern & Restaurant, with its 50 beers on tap — all from Wisconsin — and another 100 in bottles, 99 of them from the Badger state. The one other, from neighboring Minnesota, is listed under imports.
Over pints of Evil Doppleganger Double Mai Bock and Lost Lake Pilsner, knots of demonstrators debated the questions that have galvanized union employees across the country and brought the business of the state legislature to a standstill. Is Walker’s proposal part of the Republican’s effort to put the state’s finances in order, a repudiation of the state’s long history of progressive politics, or the latest example of that tradition?
Zog Begolli, a 23-year-old bill opponent, met four bill supporters at the Old Fashioned when they helped him get a drink at the crowded bar. “They allowed me to get closer so I could order a beer,” Begolli said.
“Beer is something we can all agree on,” said Randy Otto, 59, from Lake Mills, one of the bill supporters who let Begolli squeeze in.
“I was outnumbered,” Begolli said. “But the conversation was civil.”
Outside the numbers were reversed. Of the estimated 55,000 people attending Saturday’s demonstrations, probably fewer than 5,000 were Tea Party types backing Walker and his fellow Republicans.
Begolli said he agreed with the bill’s supporters that, in the state’s current budget crisis, public employees can help by paying more for their health care and retirement benefits. But he says the part of Walker’s bill curtailing collective bargaining by unionized state employees is “not about fiscal issues. It’s an attack on unions.”
Dave Andera, a 59-year old investment adviser from Milwaukee, has no problem with that. He thinks public workers should not be unionized and believes Walker is following in the progressive footsteps of the state’s great Robert La Follette by facing down organized labor.
“Wisconsin has always been in the forefront of change,” he said. “And we’re in the forefront again.”
Neither Andera nor Begolli believed he had changed the other’s mind during their 30-minute conversation at the Old Fashioned. But both thought the legislators inside the Capitol could learn something from the exchange.
“I think the more meaningful discussions this week have occurred outside the capitol,” Andera said.
“You can disagree without being disagreeable,” Begolli said. “That’s exactly what we need to see inside the State Capitol.”
Editing by Jerry Norton