MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - The issues were serious but the mood was cheery on Sunday among demonstrators in Wisconsin protesting an effort by the Republican governor to reduce the bargaining power of public employee unions.
Protesters, marking the start of a second week of mass action, jammed inside the state Capitol’s rotunda, protected from the sleet and wet snow outside, to munch pizza donated by sympathizers from out of state and from foreign countries.
“It’s like a street festival,” said Tyler Pagel, 29, whose wife is a teacher, one of tens of thousands of workers who could be affected by Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to roll back pay, benefits and bargaining rights of government employees.
Pagel joked that even in Madison, which was a hotbed of student activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the protests were extraordinary.
“This is Madison. So it’s not hard to get 200 people to protest anything. But 2,000? Or 20,000? It’s unbelievable,” he said.
Adding to the festive atmosphere was the sound of someone blowing a vuvuzela, one of the buzzing horns whose sound permeated the World Cup competition last year in South Africa.
Draped in a Wisconsin state flag, Pagel distributed pizzas paid for by a supporter in Minnesota and delivered to the Capitol where some 1,500 people were camped inside on Sunday.
A local pizza parlor called Ian’s posted a sign listing where it was getting donations for pizzas to be delivered to the demonstrators — 40 of the 50 U.S. states, Korea, Finland, Denmark, Australia, Turkey, Canada, the Netherlands, China, Australia, China, England, Egypt and elsewhere.
Demonstrators have been pouring into the state capital of Madison for days since the governor made his controversial proposal, numbering as many as 55,000 on Saturday.
A mass rally was expected on Monday, a mandatory furlough day for state workers.
Jeff Rae, 30, who works for the Transport Workers Union in Washington, said he arrived in Madison to gather intelligence on the controversy. His union sees Wisconsin as the first in a series of battles nationwide, he said.
“This is Ground Zero,” Rae said. “Ohio’s next.”
Like Wisconsin, Ohio is looking to cuts in spending to balance its budget. In Ohio, however, the odds are seen favoring organized labor more than in Wisconsin, Rae said.
Robert Koenig, a 49-year-old employee with the agency that oversees Wisconsin’s retirement system, said he had accompanied members of his daughter’s seventh-grade class to the capitol earlier in the week to watch the political drama unfold.
“I told them, ‘You’re not going to school today. But you’re going to learn an important civic lesson,’” he said.
Pagel said he planned to spend the night sleeping in the rotunda where on Saturday night, some 400 people slept inside.
They are allowed to stay because a handful of Democratic Assembly members were holding an ongoing hearing on the third floor to listen to testimony from people opposed to the bill and thus the building remained open.
Local residents posted signs advertising space in their homes for those looking for a free place to sleep.
Reporting by James Kelleher; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Peter Bohan