Governor Scott Walker said the new law would be 'good for the middle class for years to come' [Reuters]

The governor of the US state of Wisconsin has signed into law a controversial bill that eliminates most union rights for public employees.

Scott Walker signed the legislation in private on Friday morning, delivering an epic defeat to the US labour movement which vowed to fight back.

At a ceremonial signing later in the day, Walker said the new law would be "good for the middle class for years to come".

The move quietly concluded a raging debate over collective bargaining that provoked three weeks of loud, relentless protests at the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison.

In an interview with the Associated Press news agency, Walker said he had "no doubt" that support for the measure would grow over time once the public sees government becoming more efficient.

"What we're doing here, I think, is progressive. It's innovative," he said.

"It's reform that leads the country, and we're showing there's a better way by sharing in that sacrifice with all of us in government."

Walker, the 43-year-old son of a preacher who has swiftly become one of the most polarising politicians in the country, insisted the proposal was necessary to balance the state budget.

He said he never backed down even after 14 Senate Democrats fled the state in an attempt to block a vote on the bill.

'Death threats'

The drama provoked an intense national debate over labour rights for public employees.

Al Jazeera's Rob Reynolds, reporting from Madison, said: "The bill would strip collective bargaining rights away from state employees.

"In the wake of that, money from campaign contributors has been flowing into the coffers of the Democrats who oppose the bill while death threats have been falling upon Republicans who supported it [the bill]."

The bill's signing is a key victory for Republicans who have targeted unions in nationwide efforts to slash government spending.

Walker belongs to the new, highly conservative wave of Republican governors who have attempted to impose restrictions on public employee unions.

But labour leaders said they plan to use the setback to fire up their members nationwide and mount a major counterattack against Republicans at the ballot box in 2012.

The measure passed the state's Assembly on Thursday following more than three weeks of protests that drew tens of thousands of people to the Capitol in opposition.

Pro-union protesters planned another mass rally at the Capitol on Saturday and are circulating petitions to recall from office eight of the Republican state senators who supported the bill.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies