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.

David Goldman / AP
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.

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.

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.)

A similar scene played out in Des Moines on Tuesday, where about 120 tea party activists protested government spending and, nearby, more than 800 union activists defended their collective bargaining rights. Iowa Republicans have proposed weakening union power over public employees, but not eliminating collective bargaining.

The Des Moines protests represent a healthy exercise of democracy at a time of national turmoil, said state Sen. Rick Bertrand (R). "It was a good cross section of Iowa," Senator Bertrand told the Des Moines Register. "I think we all needed to walk through that crowd and see what Iowans are feeling."

Union supporters and tea party activists both plan to attend Ohio Gov. John Kasich's Thursday speech in Youngstown. Governor Kasich has backed a bill curtailing collective bargaining rights.

A Florida tea party group says as many as 4,000 tea party activists will rally on March 8 in support of Gov. Rick Scott's decision to reject federal funds for a high-speed rail project in the state. Social justice groups are planning an "Awake the State!" rally on the same day to protest Governor Scott's budget plan, which also asks for concessions from state employees.

While some of the protests have been marked by tension and name-calling, violence so far has been limited to a few small scuffles, and police have reported no arrests directly resulting from union-tea party standoffs.

Why have the protests spread?

Deficit-saddled governors and legislatures across the country are watching the outcome of the Wisconsin standoff – and their own residents' reactions. After all, 44 states and the District of Columbia are expecting a $125 billion total budget shortfall in 2012, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The protests are also foreshadowing themes[i took out laying the groundwork] for the 2012 presidential elections, with Democrats, especially, looking to mobilize a base that seemed moribund in the 2010 midterm elections.

"During the health-care debate and tea party rallies in 2009 and '10, you saw the big numbers and enthusiasm skewed to the right," says Professor Abramowitz. "This year we're seeing, at least on this issue, an energized Democratic base."

As a result, the 2012 Democratic strategy isn't likely to be based on hope, as in 2008, but on "fear of what would happen if you had Republican control of the White House and the Congress," Abramowitz says.

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