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Union battle echoes beyond Wisconsin: 'We’re fighting for our very existence'

Other states are watching Wisconsin's bid to virtually break labor unions as a means of cutting huge deficits. Unions in Wisconsin and beyond see this as a Waterloo moment.

By Staff writer / February 17, 2011

Protesters of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers pack the rotunda at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Thursday.

Andy Manis/AP

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Chicago

About 40,000 public-sector employees crammed into the Wisconsin state Capitol and surrounding blocks in Madison Thursday, hoping to sway three Republican state senators to block a bill they say is designed to wipe out 50 years of union labor laws in the state.

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“We’re fighting for our very existence,” says Mike Lipp, president of Madison Teachers Incorporated, representing 2,500 public school teachers in the city.

The political drama was set in motion Monday when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) proposed a bill that he says is necessary shore up the state deficit. The bill would force workers in non-law-enforcement unions to pay more for their pension and health benefits, remove their collective-bargaining power on anything but wages, force members to vote every 12 months to certify their union’s existence, and bar them from deducting union dues from state paychecks.

Governor Walker says the measures would save the state nearly $30 million through the end of June and nearly $300 million during the next two fiscal years. The state faces a projected $3.6 billion gap during the next two years, and other states such as Ohio and Tennessee, which are in similar fiscal situations and are considering similar bills, are tracking Wisconsin to see how the controversy plays out.

“There is no question that the big-business elites in this country and the political right wing together see the recession in general – and state and local fiscal crises in particular – as an opportunity to advance their agenda,” says Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 in Illinois.

Desperation in Madison

By Tuesday, the Madison hill was swamped with thousands of protesters, who attended a 17-hour public hearing. Since then, union supporters from Wisconsin and from surrounding states have grown in numbers. Schools were shut down for third straight day in Madison, and even President Obama has weighed in on the matter, telling a Milwaukee television station he felt unions were under an “assault.”

“I think it's very important for us to understand that public employees, they're our neighbors, they're our friends,” he said.

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