Wisconsin Republicans strip public employees of union rights

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Wisconsin governor Scott Walker yesterday succeeded in taking away nearly all collective bargaining rights from the vast majority of the state's public employees, quietly capping weeks of contentious debate and delivering an epic defeat to the labour movement.

The proposal sparked a national debate over labour rights for public employees, and its implementation is a key victory for Republicans who have targeted unions in nationwide efforts to slash government spending. But labour leaders said they plan to use the setback to mount a major counterattack against Republicans at the ballot box in 2012.

The measure passed the state's assembly a day earlier following more than three weeks of protests that drew tens of thousands of people to the Capitol in Madison in opposition. Pro-union supporters planned a mass rally at the Capitol today and continued to circulate petitions to recall from office eight of the Republican state senators who supported the bill.

The state senate cleared the way for passage with a surprise move on Wednesday that allowed it to move the measure forward by an 18-1 vote without 14 Democratic senators present.

Republicans, newly empowered after seizing control of the US House of Representatives and many state governments in November elections, had promised backers they would institute deep spending cuts, hold the line on or cut taxes and shrink the size of government.

Mr Walker was part of the new, highly conservative wave of Republicans who have moved to cut taxes for businesses in their states. Similar restrictions on union bargaining rights are making their way through Ohio's legislature. Several other states are debating lesser measures to curb union rights.

Richard Trumka, leader of AFL-CIO, the United States' largest labour federation, said the action in Wisconsin was a "corruption of democracy".

If events in Wisconsin, once a leading state in the US labour movement, do energise union activists nationwide, it could be good news for president Barack Obama's 2012 re-election bid. Union backing will be critical to Mr Obama's winning a second term. Organised labour has traditionally been a bastion of support for Democrats.

The protracted battle over the Wisconsin bill ended on Wednesday, when Republicans stripped budget measures out of the larger bill, leaving it as a vote only on collective bargaining. That meant the absent Senate Democrats were no longer needed for a quorum.

The bill forces most state workers to pay more for their pensions and health care benefits, which is estimated to save Wisconsin $30 million (18.6m) to help pay down a $137m budget shortfall projected by 1 July.But portions of the proposal had to be removed for it to pass without Democrats, meaning the legislature must take more action later to balance the budget.

Mr Walker had repeatedly argued that ending collective bargaining would give local governments the flexibility they needed to confront the state aid cuts necessary to fix Wisconsin's deficit, which is projected to grow to $3.6 billion over two years.

"This is ultimately about a commitment to the future, so our children don't face even more dire consequences than what we face today," he said.

Mr Walker said his plan would avoid the need for any layoffs. He had issued public employee unions a notice last week that up to 1,500 jobs would be lost if the bill did not pass. But just before he signed it yesterday, he rescinded the notice.

"We came into office promising to help the economy and create jobs," Republican senator Scott Fitzgerald said. "This bill prevents 1,500 real layoffs, and countless more at the local level over the next few years."

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