Many workers are concerned the bill will strip away at their collective bargaining rights [AFP]

An assembly in the US state of Wisconsin has passed a bill that  is said to strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights.

The vote on Friday put an end to three straight days of debate, but the political standoff over the bill is far from over.

The proposal of Scott Walker, Wisconsin's Republican governor, contains a number of provisions he says are designed to fill the state's $137 million deficit and lay the groundwork for fixing a projected $3.6bn shortfall in the 2011-13 budget.

The contentious issue is language that would strip almost all public-sector workers of their right to collectively bargain benefits and work conditions.

The measure now goes to the state senate, where minority Democrats have been missing for a week, preventing
a vote in that chamber. They see the measure as an attack on workers' rights and an attempt to cripple union support for the Democrats.

Unions have also said they would be willing to accept a provision that would increase workers' contributions to their pensions and health care, provided they could still bargain collectively.

But Walker has refused to compromise.

Tens of thousands of protesters have filled the state capital, Madison, since last week to protest, pounding on drums and chanting so loudly that police who are providing security have resorted to ear plugs. Hundreds have also taken to sleeping in the building overnight, dragging in air mattresses and blankets.

Walker has said that if the bill does not pass by Friday, the state will miss a deadline to refinance $165 million of debt and will be forced to start issuing layoff notices next week.

However, the deadline may not be as strict as he says. The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said earlier this week that the debt refinancing could be pushed back as late as Tuesday to achieve the savings Walker wants.

System 'under attack'

Based on a similar refinancing in 2004, about two weeks are needed after the bill becomes law to complete the deal. That means if the bill is adopted by the middle of next week, the state can still meet a March 16 deadline, the Fiscal Bureau said.

Jon Erpenbach, a Democratic senator, said he and his colleagues would not return until Walker compromised.

The showdown in Wisconsin between Republicans and Democratic-backed unions is testing whether a way of life for generations of America's public employees will endure the country's dire economic times.

Under attack is a system where, in return for earning a smaller salary than they could get in the private sector, teachers and other public employees often have greater job security, better pension benefits and pay less for employer-sponsored health insurance coverage.

In many states, those benefits to public employees make up a large part of the budget difficulties
facing the governors.

Walker is demanding changes in the name of closing a budget deficit. He wants to strip unionised workers - school teachers in particular - of most of their bargaining rights.

Similar moves are occurring in other states where Republicans are in power and newly empowered members of the party took control of state legislatures in November elections.

Source: Agencies