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Wisconsin labor protesters refuse to back down

Saturday, March 12, 2011 | 3:42 p.m. CST

 MADISON — Thousands of pro-labor protesters undeterred by the success of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's plan to cut public workers' collective bargaining rights marched at the state's Capitol on Saturday, vowing to refocus their fight on future elections.

Walker signed the plan into law Friday, capping a week of political maneuvering that brought a swift end to a standoff that saw tens of thousands of demonstrators converge on the state's capitol and 14 Democratic senators flee to Illinois in an ultimately failed attempt to block the legislation.

Throngs of protesters gathered Saturday outside a convention center where 13 of the senators made their first public appearance in Madison since ending their self-imposed exile, yelling "Fab 14, our heroes!"

Before marching around the Capitol with demonstrators, Senator Spencer Coggs of Milwaukee said Walker had forced Republicans into "walking the plank" by passing the law. He and the others said they also planned to shift their energies toward recall efforts already under way against eight GOP colleagues.

Some of the Democrats also are facing recall efforts.

Walker's plan has spurred a national debate over labor rights, and its passage is key to Republicans who have targeted unions in efforts to cut government spending across the country. But labor leaders promise to use the setback to fire up members and mount a major counterattack against Republicans at the ballot box in 2012.

Dozens of farmers who paraded through the streets on tractors were among those supporting union workers Saturday. They drew cheers as they pumped their fists in the air and displayed signs such as "Planting the seeds for a big season of recalls."

Tod Pulvermacher of Bear Valley towed a manure spreader carrying a sign that read, "Walker's bill belongs here."

"Farmers are working-class Americans," the 33-year-old said as the crowd around him started to cheer. "We work for a living as hard as anybody, and this is about all of us."

The new law requires public workers to contribute more to their pensions and health care, changes that amount to an 8 percent pay cut. It also erases their ability to collectively bargain anything except wages up to the rate of inflation. Police and firefighters are exempt.

Walker has repeatedly argued that ending collective bargaining gives local governments much-needed flexibility to confront cuts in state aid necessary to fix Wisconsin's deficit, which is expected to grow to $3.6 billion deficit over two years.

Tony Schultz, 31, said the collective bargaining measure wasn't the only part of Walker's overall budget plan he finds hard to swallow. He said the governor's proposal to slash more than $900 million from school budgets will be especially painful for residents like him who live in rural areas with already limited education resources.

"I don't want my son to go to school and have 35 people in his kindergarten class," said Schultz, of Athens. "I don't want my son's music programs cut. I don't want his art programs cut."

Judy Gump, 45, who teaches English as a Madison high school, said the collective bargaining measure may be law, but protesters still want to be heard.

"This is so not the end," she said. "This is what makes people more determined and makes them dig in."


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