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Rallies in 50 states support Wis. protesters

Updated 5:00 p.m. EST

Protests kicked off around the country today as the group organized noontime rallies in all 50 state capitals as a sign of solidarity for union workers in Wisconsin battling collective bargaining restriction measures.

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker's recent legislation on public workers' rights has sparked a passionate debate nationwide over the rights of public sector unions and the need to balance unsteady budgets in all 50 states.

An estimated 1,000 union workers carrying signs and chanting "people power" gathered at the Colorado state Capitol in support of Wisconsin public employees who face the elimination of their bargaining rights.

Two raucous competing rallies over the union fight drew more than 2,000 people in freezing temperatures to Olympia, Wash., Saturday. The pro-union rally was the bigger of the two, with more than half a dozen unions sending members. They sang songs and held signs that said "Solidarity With Wisconsin" and "Unions Make Us Strong."

Tea party and conservative groups held a counter rally on the Capitol steps. Organizers estimated a few hundred people. Many of them filled petitions to "Stand with Walker."

Hundreds of Kansas labor union members and supporters rallied outside the Statehouse against what they see as political attacks on workers.

Participants in Vermont and New Hampshire labor rallies in support of Wisconsin workers said Saturday the existence of unions benefits the middle class.

Bill Townsend, a 66-year-old manager from Portsmouth, N.H., said a rally in his home city shows that not everyone agrees with Walker's effort to strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers.

"I feel the Wisconsin governor is totally wrong," said Townsend. "If we eliminate collective bargaining, we eliminate the major reason for unions to exist."

In Madison, Wisc., the political stalemate that has sparked these rallies continues.

After eleven days of protests, the Wisconsin state house began clearing out last night.

Three long nights of filibustering by House Democrats finally came to an end as the controversial bill to cut collective bargaining rights for most public workers passed the State Assembly in the early hours of Friday morning.

"What a terrible, terrible day for Wisconsin," said one Democratic Assemblyman. "What's started here goes way beyond tonight and goes way beyond this building."

And even outside its border. Protests have spread to Ohio, Indiana, and on Friday to New Jersey, where thousands came out in support of Wisconsin workers.

In Providence, Rhode Island - where the school committee is currently facing a $40 million budget deficit - the school board voted in favor of sending termination letters to the city's nearly 2,000 city teachers. The mayor insists not every teacher will lose their job.

"I feel numb. I almost feel like I need to mourn the death of an innocence. It's just surreal," said Providence teacher Mary Bush.

Wisconsin Gov. Walker is hoping to avoid the "dire consequences" of potentially laying off 1,500 state workers, which he says will be necessary if the legislature doesn't approve his budget plan as-is.

On Friday, he repeatedly called for the 14 Democratic State Senators who have been MIA for ten days to come back to Madison.

"Come back to the state capitol," Walker said. "If you want to participate in democracy. democracy happens when you are in the arena. The arena is not in Rockford, Illinois. It's not in Freeport, Illinois. It's not in Chicago."

Illinois might be the safe house for Democratic politicians in neighboring states, but the state budget is considerably worse in Illinois with a $15 billion shortfall.

The top House Democrat here in Illinois hinted recently that he was open to discussions about scaling back state worker's pensions - a move that is sure to be a talking point at today's rally.

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