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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower