US workers protest over plan to limit union power

Obama faces new political battle as rally by public-sector employees in state of Wisconsin evokes spirit of Middle East

A budget battle in the US state of Wisconsin that brought tens of thousands of protesters on to the streets has touched off a national political firestorm that could have implications for the next presidential election.

Some 70,000 people, including union members from neighbouring states, flooded the state capital Madison on Saturday, protesting against benefit cuts proposed for government workers and an attack on union bargaining rules by the right-wing Governor.

And thousands were again expected to brave snow and freezing temperatures at a midday rally yesterday, on the sixth consecutive day of protests.

The action foreshadows a political debate that is expected to grow in intensity over the next two years, as state governors propose unprecedented budget cuts and Democrats accuse their Republican rivals of using budget crises as an excuse to attack the Democrats' union base.

Wisconsin has hit national attention not just because of the swelling crowds of protesters, which led many commentators here to liken the scenes to those in the Middle East, but also because it is an early test of the political parties' ability to get supporters fired up ahead of the next elections in November 2012. The right-wing Tea Party movement assembled its own protesters to support Governor Scott Walker's proposals on Saturday, including their hero of the 2008 presidential campaign, Joe the Plumber. Meanwhile the grassroots group assembled by Barack Obama for that presidential campaign was urging its supporters to make their voices heard against the plan.

President Obama himself weighed in on the side of public employees, saying "they are our neighbours, they are our friends... they make a lot of sacrifices and it is important not to vilify them". Some of Governor Walker's proposals "seem like an assault on unions", he said.

Putative Republican presidential candidate Sarah Palin sent her own declaration of support to the Tea Party protesters in Madison, framed as a message to the other side: "Union brothers and sisters, this is the wrong fight at the wrong time."

Wisconsin is seen as a key battleground for the 2012 election. The state was won by President Obama and he is unlikely to be able to retain the White House if he loses its support.

Governor Walker, who was elevated to the chief executive job when Republicans swept last November's midterms, proposed a budget bill that requires the state government's 300,000 workers to pay more for health benefits and bigger pension contributions in order to help fill a $3.6bn (£2.2bn) budget deficit. The measure also includes a wide assault on the power of public -sector unions, including a ban on collective bargaining over benefits, an end to automatic deductions of union dues and the introduction of annual votes on union recognition.

In co-ordinated moves, when the protests began last week with teachers and firefighters storming the capitol building, 14 Democrat statehouse senators moved over the border into Illinois so that there could be no quorum for a debate on the law.

Protesters have repeatedly occupied the rotunda of the capitol every day since, chanting "Kill the bill".

Republicans sense that, after years of creeping cuts to pensions and benefits in the private sector, public sympathy for public-sector unions has been significantly weakened and Governor Walker signalled yesterday that he would not be backing down.

Unions have said they would swallow the benefits and pension contribution hikes, but not the assaults on union rights, but the Governor said giving workers the chance to opt out of union membership meant they could redirect membership fees to help fund pensions and health insurance.

"As powerful as the voices are in the capitol, I have to make sure they don't overpower the voices of the people I was voted in to represent," he said. "For decades we had leaders, Republicans and Democrats, pushed off the problems. Now there's no place to push them off to.

"We're going to make tough decisions now. We have to, to get our budget balanced."

Across the political spectrum, as budget deficits have ballooned at all levels of government, candidates have vied to propose the toughest cuts.

However, it is at the state level where the biggest austerity measures are being imposed and where both political strategists and economists are watching in order to judge their effects.

Strategists are looking to see what size and what kind of cuts risk provoking a public backlash of the kind seen in Wisconsin. Economists, meanwhile, worry that pay cuts and layoffs could set back the recovery from recession.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Solar PV Installation Teams

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Campaign Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role incorporates a mix of ...

SThree: Recruitment Consultant

competitive + incentives + uncapped comms: SThree: Did you know? 98% of our di...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

competitive: SThree: Did you know? 98% of our directors started with SThree as...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen