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Wisconsin public union fight brings threats of layoffs, recalls

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is threatening to lay off state workers if Democrats don't return to vote on his budget measure. Opponents are preparing petitions to recall Republican lawmakers.

By Staff writer / March 5, 2011

Wisconsin Minority Leader Peter Barca celebrates with other law makers and protesters outside of the state Capitol in Madison Thursday after a judge ordered the Department of Administration to open the Capitol to normal business hours starting Monday, March 7.

Andy Manis/AP

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The two sides in Wisconsin’s “Badger rebellion” over public employee unions are threatening to escalate the conflict.

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Gov. Scott Walker (R) has issued layoff warning notices to public employees. The move is aimed at forcing Democrats in the state Senate to return home and vote on his “budget reform” bill, which would also do away with most collective bargaining rights for unionized workers.

"If the Senate Democrats come back to Wisconsin, these notices may be able to be rescinded and layoffs avoided,” his office announced in an e-mail. “Without Senate action within 15 days, individual employees may begin to receive potential termination notifications."

Initial layoffs would target 1,500 state workers, a number that could rise to 12,000 if the budget standoff were to continue.

All state workers, except those at prisons, state hospitals, and other facilities open 24 hours a day, would be potential layoff targets, Governor Walker told the Associated Press. "I pushed it off as long as I could because I do not want to have layoffs.”

Meanwhile, political opponents fighting Walker’s effort to rein in unions have begun recall procedures against the eight Republican state senators eligible for recall this year. (Under Wisconsin law, elected officials in office for at least a year may be recalled. Because he was elected governor just last fall, Walker himself could not yet be recalled.)

The Service Employees International Union and the liberal group MoveOn.org are pushing the recall effort. At the same time, conservative groups have registered to gather signatures for a measure that would boot from office six of the eight Democratic senators in office long enough to be recalled.

On Friday, Senate Republicans approved a resolution declaring Democrats – who’ve been holed up in Illinois for the past two weeks – to be in contempt of the Senate, authorizing state troopers to arrest any senators they find back in Wisconsin.

The move is mostly symbolic, reports the Wisconsin State Journal: “The state constitution prohibits the arrest of legislators while in session unless they're suspected of committing felonies, treason or breach of the peace.”

Governor Walker says the spending reforms, including the restrictions on union power, are needed to close the state’s estimated $3.6 billion budget gap over the next two years.

But increasingly, people in the Badger State aren’t buying Walker’s arguments.

He was elected governor with 52 percent of the vote, but if the election were held today Walker would lose. A Rasmussen Reports poll this week shows Walker’s approval rating dropping to 43 percent, with 57 percent disapproving of his performance.

Rasmussen Reports also finds that 52 percent of Wisconsin voters say they oppose the weakening of collective bargaining rights, while 39 percent are in favor.

Nationally, such polls are a warning not only to Walker but also to other Republican governors working to weaken public employee unions.

A Pew Poll this week has 42 percent of those surveyed siding with unions while 31 percent support Walker’s position.

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll gives similar results.

“Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent,” the New York Times reported. “Those surveyed said they opposed, 56 percent to 37 percent, cutting the pay or benefits of public employees to reduce deficits….”

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