MADISON, Wis. (Reuters) - Wisconsin Republicans raised the pressure Friday on absent Democrats to return home and vote on a measure to curb the power of public sector unions which has inspired similar efforts in other states and sparked labor protests across the United States.
Fresh from a first round victory overnight, when the state Assembly passed the union bill along party lines, Republicans turned to trying to break a Democratic boycott of the Senate.
Undaunted by the setback in the Assembly, U.S. labor groups planned large demonstrations in Madison and in every state capital in the nation Saturday to fight the proposal they see as trying to break the union movement.
What began two weeks ago as Republicans in one relatively small U.S. state trying to balance the budget by rewriting local labor relations rules has turned into a major national confrontation between Republicans and business interests on one side, and the Democrats backed by union groups on the other.
In Ohio, a bill that would terminate collective bargaining rights for state workers likely will be softened by amendments before it comes to a vote next week, an Ohio Senate Democrat said Friday. "I believe it will definitely be less draconian, it will definitely be softer," said Joe Schiavoni.
And in Indiana, Democratic lawmakers have also left the state to deny Republicans a quorum, refusing to vote on Republican-backed bills that restrict worker rights.
MIDDLE CLASS PAYCHECKS
The stakes are high for labor because more than a third of public employees including teachers, police and civil service workers belong to unions. Only about six percent of private sector workers are unionized.
Thousands huddled beneath umbrellas in the rain in New Jersey's state capital of Trenton Friday to hear AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka point out the significance of the standoff. "What happens in Wisconsin affects every man, woman and child in America. Nothing less than the fate of our middle class is at stake," Trumka told the demonstrators.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, champion of the union restrictions, said Democrats who have boycotted the state Senate "need to come home and do their jobs, just like the Assembly Democrats did," Walker said in a statement.
The conservative Club for Growth began airing ads in the districts of Democrats accusing them of playing "Russian roulette" with the jobs of thousands of Wisconsin workers.
Republicans hold a 19-14 Senate majority but need a quorum of 20 to vote on spending bills. All the Democrats left the state for Illinois last Thursday because they feared they could be compelled to attend the Senate if they remained.
Wisconsin Republicans admit they lack the legal authority to force the Democrats back to the state.
In Iowa, a bill curbing collective bargaining rights for public workers passed a House committee early Friday morning, after an all-night attempt by Democrats to block the vote.
DEBT RESTRUCTURING ON HOLD
The stalemate meant Walker missed a self-imposed Friday deadline for bill approval so Wisconsin could proceed to restructure its debt. The state needed new authority in the proposed law in order to move ahead.
Wisconsin will not be able to go to the bond market on Monday as scheduled to price that debt, Frank Hoadley, Wisconsin's capital finance director, told Reuters on Friday.
Walker has also threatened to send layoff notices to many workers in state agencies if the stalemate continues.
The proposal would make state workers contribute more to health insurance and pensions, end government collection of union dues, let workers opt out of unions and require unions to hold recertification votes every year.
Collective bargaining would be allowed only on wage increases up to the rate of inflation.
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