March 11, 2011 / 12:42 AM / 7 years ago

Wisconsin governor signs into law union curbs

MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker signed into law on Friday sweeping new limits on collective bargaining for public sector workers that have sparked a national debate over labor relations.

Assembly Democrats react after the Republicans ended a three-hour debate and promptly voted on the budget repair bill at the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

In a major setback for organized labor, the state Assembly on Thursday voted 53-42 to approve the controversial bill, which has triggered the biggest demonstrations in the Wisconsin capital since the Vietnam War. The state Senate had earlier approved the measure despite a boycott of Democratic senators.

“This morning Governor Walker fulfilled his promise to sign the budget repair bill as soon as legally possible,” Walker’s office said in a statement. A signing ceremony was scheduled for later on Friday.

The law will not officially take effect until one day after Wisconsin’s secretary of state, Doug La Follette, officially publishes it. La Follette said on Friday his office typically waits 10 days to publish new laws.

Walker has said the bill, which sharply limits the union rights of public workers and requires them to pay more of their health insurance and pension costs, was needed to help the state close a $3.6 billion budget deficit over two years.

The governor said on Friday that he was canceling the layoff warning notices he sent late last week to public sector unions after lawmakers approved the proposal to restrict union power.

Walker said the new powers for state and local government in the bill, which he is expected to sign into law as early as Friday, would save $30 million in the current budget year, which ends June 30.

An Assembly Democratic member is greeted by supporters after the Republicans ended a three-hour debate and promptly voted on the budget repair bill at the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

“While tough budget choices certainly still lie ahead, both state and local units of government will not have to do any mass layoffs or direct service reductions because of the reforms contained in the budget repair bill,” Walker said earlier on Friday.

What began a month ago as a Republican effort in one U.S. state to balance the budget has now turned into a national confrontation with unions that could be the biggest since then President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers nearly 30 years ago.

Several other states are considering measures to limit public sector unions.

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Walker insisted the limits are needed to help the state’s cash-strapped municipalities deal with a projected $1.27 billion drop in aid over the next two years from the state.

The stakes are high for labor because more than a third of U.S. public employees such as teachers, police and civil service workers belong to unions while only 6.9 percent of private sector workers are unionized. In Wisconsin, 46.6 percent of government workers are union members.

Unions also are the biggest single source of funding for the Democratic party.

Peter Barca, the top Democrat in the state Assembly, filed a complaint on Thursday against Republican leaders with the district attorney in Dane County, where the state Capitol is located.

The complaint alleges that the legislative maneuver the Republicans used to push the measure through this week violated Wisconsin’s Open Meetings law.

Additional reporting by Jeff Mayers; Editing by Greg McCune

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