Ideologies clash in Wisconsin
Competing protests draw thousands in flashpoint US state over bid to roll back pay and union rights of government staff.
Last Modified: 20 Feb 2011 13:35 GMT

Other US states could be emboldened to take on the powerful unions if majority Republicans prevail in Wisconsin [AFP]

At least 55,000 demonstrators have taken to the streets of Madison, the capital of the US state of Wisconsin, where supporters of legislation to reduce public employee union bargaining power were outnumbered by their opponents.

Demonstration on Saturday by both sides was part of a weeklong clash that has become the centre of a broader ideological battle over union rights and taxes.

While the bill's opponents marched counter-clockwise around the state Capitol, chanting "Kill the bill," supporters countered with "Recall them all," referring to Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois to deny Republicans the quorum needed to consider the proposal.

Wisconsin is the flashpoint for a US struggle over efforts to roll back pay, benefits and bargaining rights of government workers.

If the majority of Republicans prevail, other US states could be emboldened to take on the powerful unions.

John Nichols, a political writer for The Nation magazine, told Al Jazeera: "The governor can't be missing the dominfant reality of the capital.

"These demonstrations have grown so large that it's no longer a question of whether or not the governor will back down but he'll resist as much as he can. Meanwhile, the workers themselves say they'll keep protesting for as long as needs be," Nichols said.

'Willing to compromise'

Anthony Thelen, 46, a bill supporter who works in a nonunion factory outside of Milwaukee, said: "I've been working in a factory for 26 years. We pay 15 per cent for the cost of our healthcare. The state workers get Cadillac insurance and pensions. They have no God-given right to collective bargaining."

Union and Democratic leaders say they are willing to compromise on benefits if Republicans back off on their bid to weaken collective bargaining.

The state assembly is due to take up the proposals again on Tuesday.

Peter Barca, a state assemblyman and minority leader, told Reuters: "My hope is before Tuesday enough Republicans will recognise this proposal is over-reaching and the support for this proposal wanes. I've been told some Republicans will reconsider," he said.

Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, estimates the state budget deficit for the rest of this fiscal year at $137 million and for the next two fiscal years under its biannual budget at $3.3 billion.

He wants state workers to increase contributions to pensions to 5.8 per cent of salary and double contributions to health insurance premiums to 12.6 per cent.

The proposal would limit collective bargaining to the issue of wages and cap increases to the rate of inflation, with a voter referendum needed for bigger increases.

It also would end government collection of union dues, allow workers to opt out of unions, and require unions to hold recertification votes every year. Walker said the alternative is to lay off more than 10,000 public employees.

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