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Wisconsin battle over state workers turns into national debate

Wisconsin, protests
Students from Horlick High School in Racine, Wis., show support for their teachers by joining thousands of others in protests at the statehouse in Madison, Wis., on Thursday, February 17, 2011. Adam Jungwirth,AP Photo/The Oshkosh Northwestern

Thousands of protesters are gearing up in Wisconsin today for a fourth day of intense demonstrations against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's "budget repair bill," as the conflict over the state's public sector unions turns national.

About 25,000 protesters descended on the state capitol in Madison Thursday, to protest Walker's bill, which would strip most public workers of nearly all union bargaining rights.

The protesters haven't lost steam -- and today they'll be joined by national labor union leaders.They're also getting the backing of liberal activist groups and the Democratic national party.

Meanwhile, Tea Party groups are planning competing competing rally [Wrong link? Don't see anything re: Tea Party in this] for Saturday, to show support for Walker's proposals. Meanwhile, conservative commentators and politicians are rallying behind the Republican governor's approach.

The conflict in Wisconsin capsulizes the greater ongoing national debate over how to solve the state and federal governments' budget woes and shrink growing deficits. President Obama jumped into the fray this week, cautioning that part of Walker's plan "seems like more of an assault on unions." Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner have praised the governor, meanwhile, for his austere approach to the budget.

The national political leaders have been given the opportunity to take sides in the public-spending struggle in what happens to be an important battleground state -- and the debate seems to be spreading to other states that should also be critical in 2012, like Ohio and Indiana.

Walker's proposal would require state workers to pay for half of their pension costs, and it would more than double their health care contributions. It would strip public worker unions of their ability to negotiate pensions, working conditions or benefits. Any wage increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index, and unions would lose their ability to have dues deducted from state paychecks. The changes would apply to all state workers except police, firefighters and state troopers.

Yesterday, Democratic state senators fled Wisconsin to deprive the state Senate of the quorum needed to pass the bill. They're still gone today, and State Patrol troopers have been sent to the home of Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller to compel him to go back to work -- if he's there. In the meantime, Republicans in the state Assembly to say they will take up the bill first. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca blasted Republicans today for "trampling on the rights of workers," reports.

Barca vowed to "fight 'til the bitter end," but Assembly Republicans have enough members (plus one independent) to call a quorum without the Democrats, reports.

Walker insisted on Fox News' "On the Record" last night that Wisconsin Republicans are going to be "bullied" or "intimidated" by public sector workers.

"I've said all along the thousands of people who are storming the capitol have every right to be heard, but I'm not going to let them overshadow the voices of the millions of taxpayers in the state of Wisconsin who deserve to be heard as well," the governor said.

Many of those protesters at the capitol are teachers. Milwaukee public schools have canceled classes for Friday, after more than 600 MPS teachers called in sick. Thursday, more than 400 called in sick. Classes were canceled elsewhere around the state, as well.

AFL-CIO National President Richard Trumka will be address the protesters today, and several other national labor leaders are also supporting the demonstrations. National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel was in Wisconsin Thursday, and Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, also was traveling there.

"It's inspiring to see middle-class workers coming together to say they've had enough of this one-sided class war," Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said in a statement, calling Mr. Walker's proposal a "vindictive attack on people he views as his political enemies."

Labor leaders will be delivering food to the protesters who have stayed at the state capitol for days now, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

All of these efforts have been backed up by Organizing for America, Mr. Obama's political arm of the Democratic National Committee. OFA has mobilized protesters through phone banking and social media, the Washington Post reports.

The group is working with labor officials to organize similar demonstrations in places like Ohio and Indiana, where lawmakers are considering similar moves to scale back public workers' benefits.

About 3,800 public workers protested in Ohio Thursday against the efforts of Republican Gov. John Kasich and the GOP-controlled legislature to curtail collective bargaining for state employees.

Boehner yesterday criticized the president for allowing OFA to interfere with Republican efforts to reform state budgets and praised Walker and Kasich.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Republican who could be vulnerable to a Tea Party primary challenge next year, also praised Walker, the New York Times reports.

"It is too bad that Washington Democrats are attacking them rather than following their lead," [CUT] Hatch said on Thursday. "President Obama's comments today were, frankly, way off base. The only assault is from a bunch of self-interested government union employees who are putting their interests ahead of the interests of the Wisconsin taxpayers who have been funding their runaway spending."

Wisconsin's own Rep. Paul Ryan, Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, cautiously said on MSNBC this week that "people should be able to express their way, but we've got to get this deficit and debt under control in Madison, if we want to have a good business climate and job creation in Wisconsin."

"It's like Cairo has moved to Madison these days," he said.


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