STEVE INSKEEP, host:
About this time yesterday we called the Wisconsin State Senate leader who wants to limit collective bargaining for some public employee unions in his state. Republican Senator Scott Fitzgerald said his Democratic colleagues, quote, embarrassed themselves by fleeing the state to prevent the state Senate from voting.
This morning we have the Democratic Senate leader on the line. Mark Miller, welcome to the program.
State Senator MARK MILLER (Democrat, Wisconsin): Good morning.
INSKEEP: Is it in fact embarrassing to be talking to us from an undisclosed location?
Senator MILLER: Well, I think it was embarrassing that the governor tried to take away workers' rights in just four short days from the time he introduced the bill to the time he asked for it. Now the only option available to us was to deny a quorum so that this bill could have greater exposure.
INSKEEP: Although that does rate - excuse me. That will raise a lot of questions with a lot of people. Is it, small d, democratic to prevent a lawfully elected Senate from voting?
Senator MILLER: Well, I think it's in support of democracy. You can see what a tremendous response in opposition to the governor's proposal to take away workers' rights raised. And so we were doing, I think, the thing that was in support of democracy.
INSKEEP: You have pulled a lot of people out onto the streets, that is certainly true, but Republicans can say, look, they won the election, this is a lawfully elected body, why not let it move forward?
Senator MILLER: Well, if you're the majority and you have the power, you also have a responsibility to assure that what you propose is not rammed through in four short working days, particularly something that strips away workers' rights.
INSKEEP: Now, your Democratic colleagues in Wisconsin's assembly are apparently - in the other House of the assembly - apparently going to work today and offering many, many amendments. We've heard support suggesting there may be hundreds of amendments. Why would your fellow senators not want to join that?
State Sen. MILLER: We have the option to deny the quorum when the bill came up before us. It came before us first, and it came before us just four days after it was introduced. It came before us on the same day that the public hearing was prematurely terminated in order to be able to rush the bill through. So at the time that this came up, after only four days, leaving the capital was our only option.
INSKEEP: Does that mean that having delayed the process that you're going to be willing in some reasonable amount of time to vote on this bill, even if you're going to lose the vote?
State Sen. MILLER: Well, we have provided a window of opportunity for cooler heads to prevail. The state employees have offered to give the governor the economic concessions he required to - he called he required to be able to balance next year's budget. And they've asked in return to be able to keep their rights as workers. So it's no longer an economic issue. And with that being the case, we have provided an opportunity for there to be a resolution.
INSKEEP: Do you see any way that there can be a resolution other than -I mean do you see a way forward for negotiation here, is what I'm asking?
State Sen. MILLER: Oh, absolutely, there is a way for negotiation. And there is an offer on the table right now, which is very public, which is that the state employees have agreed to the economic concession; they want to retain their rights. The governor should accept that. Any kind of a governor that has that has that kind of a good deal should pick it up.
INSKEEP: What I mean is, are there - forgive me Senator - are there any Republican senators who have indicated to you in your conversations that they might be willing to swing over to your side?
State Sen. MILLER: We have been in discussions with the Republican legislators, but they are afraid to go against the governor at this point.
INSKEEP: One other thing, Senator Miller, conservative commentators have been increasingly frank and saying that this is, in fact, about cutting the power of labor unions. But then they flip that argument around and they basically say this: They say that you're just defending the power of the unions because they back the Democratic Party; that those union contributions are good for the Democratic Party and that's why you're fighting so hard. It is that true?
State Sen. MILLER: Absolutely not. The Democrats have always been for protecting people's rights, for standing up for the common man, and this is just a classic example. Wisconsin has the longest tradition of workmen's laws in the country. We're the state that where workmen's compensation began. We were the first state to have unemployment insurance. We were the first state to have a public employees union to give public employees the right to bargain.
So this has been a longstanding tradition of workers' rights in Wisconsin. And I think as elected officials we have a responsibility not only to protect rights, but to expand them.
INSKEEP: Senator Miller, thanks very much for speaking with us this morning.
State Sen. MILLER: My pleasure.
INSKEEP: Mark Miller is the minority leader, the Democratic leader in the Wisconsin State Senate. He spoke to us this morning from what's being described as an undisclosed location, and is presumed to be somewhere outside the borders of the state of Wisconsin. And we'll continue covering this story as we learn more.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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