MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Dozens of protesters against proposed legislation to weaken state public unions refused to leave the Wisconsin state capitol building on Sunday and police said they would be allowed to stay the night.
Hundreds had remained in the Capitol from a massive protest rally on Saturday, with hundreds more outside in chill winter weather. Police had announced they would close the building at 4 p.m. for cleaning and custodial work.
Many filed out of the capitol building as ordered. But about 200 refused to leave, with many mingling with assembled local police and building workers. Floor polishing and other work started and protesters did not interfere.
“They are allowed to stay tonight, but we are going to go back tonight and evaluate our procedures,” Charles Tubbs, head of Capitol Police, told reporters.
He said there had been no arrests for violations and the Capitol building would open again for normal business hours on Monday at 8 a.m. after maintenance with stricter rules.
“Mattresses and all the other items, they will not be allowed in here tomorrow,” Tubbs said.
He said the decision to allow protesters to stay was made based on the cooperation he’d seen and the fact that “we had a large number of people who were not planning on leaving.”
“We have asked and the citizens have cooperated,” he said.
Protesters, some who have camped in the building since February 15, greeted the news happily, with some dancing under the rotunda.
Earlier, demonstrators outside the Capitol greeted those exiting with chants and support on Sunday afternoon.
“Let us in!” chanted the crowd. “We are Wisconsin, the whole world is watching!”
“It’s cold outside, not as cold as Gov. Walker,” read one sign held by a protester.
A crowd estimated at more than 70,000 people on Saturday waved American flags, sang the national anthem and called for defeat of a plan by newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker to curb public sector union collective bargaining that has galvanized opposition from the American labor movement.
Wisconsin’s state Assembly approved Walker’s plan early on Friday morning but Senate Democrats have fled the state to prevent a vote in that chamber, which also must pass the bill.
Walker says the plan is vital to close a budget deficit of $137 million for this fiscal year.
On Sunday, Walker said he would not back down in his confrontation with the public sector unions and repeated his threat to lay off state workers if the standoff continues.
“If we do not get these changes and the Senate Democrats do not come back, we’re going to be forced to make up the savings in layoffs and that to me is unacceptable,” Walker said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Protesters on Sunday rejected Walker’s arguments.
“It’s not about the budget,” said one protester, Kevin Logan, a 36-year-old union worker from Illinois. “Everybody’s made concessions. They meet what they need as far as the budget goes. It’s just a ploy to bust unions, that’s all it is.”
Crowds thinned around the capitol after exit doors were locked. But one group continuing their calls, “The people united will never be divided.”
Car horns blared in support as vehicles drove past. One demonstrator said they, as a group, will continue their actions until tomorrow. Others mentioned coming back tomorrow.
The rotunda remained full, with protesters banging drums amid chants of “Tell me what democracy looks like.” Outside, a man with an accordion was laying polkas and people waiting to enter the building were chanting “Whose house?” “Our house!”
The options on the leaflets include leave peacefully, allow themselves to be escorted out, or go limp and be carried out. But police and demonstrators reported no incidents.
Hattie Chamberlin, 18, a college student from nearby Sauk Prairie who wants to be a teacher, said the people did not want to give police, a public union themselves, a hard time.
“We don’t want to put them in a position where they are struggling to decide what to do,” Chamberlin said. “They’re fighting the same fight we are.”
Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Peter Bohan