MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Protests against a Wisconsin Republican plan to curb the union bargaining rights of public workers intensified on Friday after the state’s biggest school district closed because so many teachers were leaving to demonstrate.
The protests have so far been peaceful because demonstrators are overwhelmingly opposed to the proposal. But the potential for confrontation grew when the conservative Tea Party movement announced that it would hold a rally at the Capitol on Saturday supporting the Republican plan.
Wisconsin has become a flashpoint for a national struggle over how states should restore their financial health after the recession. If the majority Republicans in Wisconsin prevail, other states could be emboldened to take on powerful public employee unions.
The Milwaukee Public School system, which serves 85,000 students in the state’s largest city, canceled all classes after nearly 630 teachers called in sick early on Friday.
“Until this morning, we had been able to put together enough of an operation to continue instruction,” spokeswoman Roseann St. Aubin said.
Thousands of demonstrators, some of them wearing the cheese wedge-shaped hats favored by fans of Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers, peacefully crowded the streets around the State Capitol again on Friday.
“Every day the crowds are bigger,” said Jay Heck, the executive of Common Cause Wisconsin, a non-partisan advocacy group based in Madison. He predicted Friday’s protests would be the biggest yet.
New Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whose plan to cut the budget deficit prompted the protests, on Friday called his proposals a “modest request.”
Democrats in the state Senate failed to show up at the legislature in the capital Madison for a second straight day on Friday morning. They had left the state on Thursday to protest Walker’s plan, effectively delaying legislative consideration of the measure by depriving the senate of a quorum.
President Barack Obama sided with the demonstrators on Thursday, calling the proposal an “assault on unions.” U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner criticized Obama and said he supported fellow Republicans in Wisconsin.
Walker’s administration puts the deficit for the remainder of the current fiscal year at $137 million and for the next two fiscal years under its biannual budget at $3.3 billion.
Republicans wants state workers to increase contributions to their pensions to 5.8 percent of salary, and double contributions to their health insurance premiums to 12.6 percent.
They also want to limit collective bargaining to the issue of wages, and cap increases to the rate of inflation, with a voter referendum needed for bigger increases. Walker’s proposal also ends government collection of union dues, allows workers to opt out of unions, and requires unions to hold recertification votes every year.
Walker said the alternative is to layoff more than 10,000 workers.
“This is a bold political move, but it is a modest request of our employees,” the governor said on CBS’s “Early Show.”
“The people who are here, the thousands of protesters, union protesters ... have a right to be heard, but the millions and millions of taxpayers in the state have a right to be heard as well,” Walker said.
Judy Beehler, a 61-year-old elementary school teacher from Milwaukee who spent Thursday night sleeping on the floor of the State Capitol, said the governor’s plan was driven by ideology, not a desire to fix the state’s budget.
“It’s not about the money, it’s about losing our rights,” she said. “They have to be stopped now.”
U.S. state and local governments are struggling to balance their budgets after the recession decimated their finances. Some states such as Wisconsin, Texas, Arizona and Ohio are trying to make deep cuts in spending to balance the books. Others such as Minnesota and Illinois are raising taxes.
Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican majority leader in the state Senate, said he had asked the governor to send a state trooper to the home of a Democratic senate minority leader Mark Miller to see if he was there, according to WisPolitics, an online news service.
It was not immediately clear if the state police would heed such a request. Democrats apparently left the state because they were concerned that they would be compelled to return to the Capitol if they stayed in Wisconsin.
Republicans need a quorum of 20 senators to hold a vote on the proposal. Without the 14 Democratic senators, Republicans would have only 19 senators.
Additional reporting by Vickie Allen in Washington, Darren Hauck in Madison, John Rondy in Milwaukee and Andrew Stern, James Kelleher and Karen Pierog in Chicago; Editing By Greg McCune