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In Wisconsin's long shadow, unions and tea partyers face off across US

Police have separated union activists and tea party supporters in Atlanta, Denver, Des Moines, and Columbus, as tensions rise over a Wisconsin push to curtail collective bargaining.

By Staff writer / February 24, 2011

Protestors in support of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (top) demonstrate against a labor rally in solidarity with Wisconsin's union workers (bottom), outside the State Capitol in Atlanta, Feb. 23.

David Goldman / AP

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Atlanta

Protests sparked by a push from Wisconsin Republicans to gut collective bargaining for unions – in order to balance the state budget – continue to spread, with several state capitals witnessing vitriolic faceoffs between union protesters and tea party activists this week.

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About 300 union protesters and about 100 tea party activists taunted one another in front of the gold-domed Georgia Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, in a scene echoing similar standoffs earlier in the week in Columbus, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; and Denver, Colo.

Meanwhile, deadlock continues in Madison, Wis., ground zero of the debate over public-sector union benefits and their impact on deficit-burdened state coffers. Democratic senators there have decamped for Illinois in protest – and to thwart a quorum for a vote on the union-targeting legislation. A similar episode is playing out in Indiana, where the state legislature is also controlled by Republicans.

Across the country, Democratic-backed unions and Republican-backed tea party activists – essentially ideological alter egos – are facing off on the streets. The dueling protesters want to show solidarity with their respective causes and to voice their opinions in a high-stakes debate that could rewrite long-standing social compacts.

"This is a very polarizing issue that people are now reacting to all over the country," says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, in Atlanta. Not including Wisconsin protesters, "the number of people who are actually out demonstrating is pretty small in terms of the electorate, but each side is representative of each party's base."

Atlanta's clash is notable for taking place in a right-to-work state that bars unions from running closed shops. What's more, the Georgia legislature isn't proposing any Wisconsin-like cuts to state employee benefits.

Nevertheless, union workers said they gathered in solidarity with the Wisconsin workers and to ensure that Georgia legislators don't follow the lead of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). Across the street, tea party activists shouted "You're fired!" at the union group.

In Denver, the two sides faced off Tuesday at the end of a union rally at the Capitol, prompting the police to call in backup and stand between the groups. A video of the event shows union protesters calling the tea party contingent "tea party fascists," while the tea party crew chanted, "USA! USA! USA!" (YouTube video here.)

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