Tea Party backers outnumbered in Wisconsin budget demonstrations

MADISON, Wisconsin Sat Feb 19, 2011 3:55pm EST

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MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Supporters of legislation to reduce public employee union bargaining power and benefits in Wisconsin were far outnumbered by opponents on Saturday, as the two sides shouted competing slogans under clear skies.

Tens of thousands have demonstrated throughout the week against Republican Governor Scott Walker's proposals, which supporters say are necessary to bring state spending under control and opponents contend are aimed at breaking the back of state worker unions.

Both sides drew thousands on Saturday, but opponents appeared to have several times as many on hand as those attending a rally backed by Tea Party groups, the first such demonstration this week.

The bill's opponents marched counter-clockwise around the State Capitol, encircling its supporters, and chanted "kill the bill" among other slogans.

The supporters countered with "Recall them all," referring to Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois last week to avoid giving Republicans the quorum needed to consider the proposal.

"I've been working in a factory for 26 years. We pay 15 percent for the cost of our health care. The state workers get Cadillac insurance and pensions. They have no god-given right to collective bargaining," said bill supporter Anthony Thelen, 46, who works in a non-union factory outside of Milwaukee.

In addition to sharply curtailing union bargaining power, the Republican legislation would make state workers contribute more to health insurance and pensions.

"I'm so excited that you people have come out to support Governor Walker. In an era of irresponsible government he is doing the right thing," Ned Ryun, President of the American Majority, a sponsor of the rally, told the crowd.

Although there had been fear of a clash, the atmosphere was generally peaceful and friendly, with organizers on both sides urging followers to be courteous and police needing to do little but stand by.

Margaret Derr, high school math teacher and union member, said she didn't dislike the governor personally.

"I'm just opposed to the bill. I have no problem contributing more to my healthcare and pension. I understand about the deficit, but some of the proposals are just about union busting."

Regarding the supporters' rally, she said: "I believe in free speech. This is what democracy is about, everybody being heard."

While the weather was cold, as of early afternoon snow and freezing rain forecast for the day had failed to materialize.

(Reporting by James Kelleher; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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