MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Wisconsin Republicans seeking to curb the power of public sector unions tried on Friday to pressure absent Democrats to return home and vote on a plan that has sparked labor protests across the country.
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 for large demonstrations in Madison and in every state capital in the nation on 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 the GOP and business interests on one side, and the Democrats backed by union groups on the other.
If Republicans prevail in Wisconsin, a number of other states governed by conservative majorities could follow and deal a serious blow to union power in the United States.
The stakes are high for labor because more than a third of public employees such as teachers, police and civil service workers belong to unions while only about six percent of private sector workers are unionized.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, champion of the union restrictions, traveled on Friday to the home districts of three of the Democrats who have boycotted the Senate, to pressure them to come back and vote on the measure.
“Democrats 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 the 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 sent police earlier this week in an unsuccessful search for the runaways, but admit they lack the legal authority to force the Democrats back.
The stalemate also meant Walker missed a self-imposed Friday deadline for bill approval so Wisconsin could proceed to restructure its debt to help eliminate a budget deficit. 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.
In a procedural maneuver, Republicans on Friday convened the Senate without the Democrats and moved the controversial union restrictions proposal to the point where it could be voted on quickly without amendment should any of the Democrats return.
One of the missing Democrats sounded defiant in an interview on Friday.
“Until we are able to engage in a real debate, until we’re able to throw this bill out and actually move forward with a budget repair bill and move forward with the real business of Wisconsin, we can’t come back,” state Senator Chris Larson said on the nationally broadcast “Democracy Now” news program.
The Wisconsin changes sought by Walker 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.
A public opinion poll of Wisconsin voters published on Thursday showed that, like much of the nation, they are divided on the fundamental issue of union rights.
Asked about the proposal for the public sector workers to contribute more toward health insurance and pensions, 71 percent said that was fair. But 56 percent said the public employee unions should have collective bargaining powers.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mayers; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton