MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Thousands of demonstrators converged on the Wisconsin state capital on Sunday to oppose a bid to reduce public employee union bargaining power, marking the start of a second week of growing protests with threats of wider dissent ahead.
Inside the Capitol’s central rotunda and in its balconies, opponents of the controversial proposal by Republican Governor Scott Walker banged drums and shouted “We’re not going away!”
Outside, where wet snow was falling, protesters chanted “Union busting is disgusting” against the governor’s bid, which supporters say is needed to control state debt and spending and opponents contend would break the back of state worker unions.
While the crowds had dwindled from Saturday, when officials estimated about 55,000 demonstrators gathered, a major showing was expected on Monday, when the Wisconsin Education Association Council, representing some 98,000 public education employees, was planning a rally.
Monday is a mandatory furlough day for state workers.
Speaking in a television interview on Sunday, the governor said he expects the Democrats who oppose his plan will agree to debate it early this week.
Fourteen state Democratic senators have left the state to deny the Wisconsin legislature a quorum needed to consider the controversial proposal.
Those senators have “failed to do their jobs,” Walker said on Fox Network’s “Fox News Sunday.”
“If you want to participate in democracy, you’ve got to be in the arena, and the arena is right here in Madison, Wisconsin,” he said.
One opponent to the governor’s proposal, David Poklinkoski, the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 2304, called it “a bold, opening salvo not only in Wisconsin but across the country.”
“Private sector workers know we’re next,” he said, adding: “If you had told me last Friday, when the governor dropped this bomb on us, that 200,000 people would have turned out in the streets over the next week to protest, I would have said ‘no way.’
“But the other side has made it clear that we’re ground zero in a national fight. So we need to act like it, and so far we have,” he said.
Public sector workers in West Virginia, in support of the Wisconsin protests, will rally on Monday to demand better pay and improved working conditions, a union spokesman said.
Wisconsin, where the first demonstrations were staged last Sunday outside the governor’s residence, has become the flashpoint for a U.S. struggle over efforts to roll back pay, benefits and bargaining rights of government workers. If the majority Republicans prevail, other states could be emboldened to take on the powerful unions.
Those backing the proposal were planning a nationwide demonstration on Tuesday, said Ned Ryun, the head of American Majority which sponsored a rally on Saturday attended by about 5,000 supporters of the Tea Party limited-government movement.
“What happens in Wisconsin will set the tone for the rest of the nation,” he said.
The governor said on Fox he expects the Democrats who left the state for Illinois to return in coming days, although one of them has said they are prepared to be away for weeks.
“My hope is that cooler minds will prevail and by some time earlier this coming week they’ll show up for their job,” Walker said.
The Wisconsin State Assembly is due to take up the proposals on Tuesday. Republicans have a large enough majority to quorum in the Assembly without the Democrats.
“My hope is before Tuesday enough Republicans will recognize this proposal is over-reaching and the support for this proposal wanes. I’ve been told some Republicans will reconsider,” State Assemblyman and Minority Leader Peter Barca said on Saturday.
U.S. state and local governments are struggling to balance budgets after the recession decimated their finances. Other states like Texas, Arizona and Ohio are relying mainly on cuts in spending, while Minnesota and Illinois are raising taxes.
The changes sought by Walker in Wisconsin 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.
Union and Democratic leaders say they are willing to compromise on benefits if Republicans back off the bid to weaken collective bargaining, but Walker and his allies have stood firm.
Walker estimates the state budget deficit for the rest of this fiscal year at $137 million and for the next two fiscal years under its biannual budget at $3.3 billion.
Walker said the alternative is to lay off more than 10,000 public employees.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Peter Bohan and Tim Gaynor