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Wis. governor officially cuts collective bargaining

Image: Wisconsin Legislature eliminates collective bargaining for public workers
Protesters are removed by police from the Wisconsin Assembly chamber as they try to block access to the chambers in Madison on Thursday. CARLOS JAVIER ORTIZ / EPA
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has officially taken away nearly all collective bargaining rights from the vast majority of the state's public employees.

Walker signed the bill to do so privately Friday morning. He planned an afternoon news conference in the Capitol.

The Wisconsin law will take effect the day after it is published by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has 10 days from the signing, excluding signings, to publish it.

The explosive measure passed the Assembly on Thursday following more than three weeks of protests that drew tens of thousands of people to the Capitol in opposition. The Senate cleared the way for passage with a surprise move Wednesday that allowed them to vote on the bill without 14 Democratic senators present.

That ends — for now — a three-week battle that saw all Democratic state senators flee to a neighboring state and as many as 80,000 protest at the Capitol building.

Walker also said on Friday he was canceling the layoff warning notices he sent late last week to public sector unions after lawmakers approved his proposal to restrict the collective bargaining rights of those unions.

The Wisconsin governor said the new powers for state and local government in the bill would save $30 million in the current budget year, which ends June 30. The measure also requires that public servants pay more of their health insurance and pension costs.

"While tough budget choices certainly still lie ahead, both state and local units of government will not have to do any mass layoffs or direct service reductions because of the reforms contained in the budget repair bill," Walker said in a statement.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Walker said once the public sees government becoming more efficient, support for the changes will increase.

"What we're doing here, I think, is progressive. It's innovative. It's reform that leads the country, and we're showing there's a better way by sharing in that sacrifice with all of us in government," he said.

Chris Larson, one of the 14 Wisconsin senators who left the state for Illinois during the standoff with Walker and Republican leaders, confirmed with NBC News that the 14 would be "back in our homes tonight."

Union leaders look to launch counterattack
Union leaders say they plan to use the setback to galvanize members nationwide and mount a major counterattack against Republicans at the ballot box in 2012.

The Wisconsin Capitol fell eerily quiet Thursday night. While people had been sleeping in the building for weeks, all eventually left after the Assembly, the lower house, voted 53-43 to pass the contentious bill.

The vote came hours after a Republican maneuver in the Senate on Wednesday night overcame a parliamentary logjam caused by the three-week self-exile of Democratic Senators.

They had taken refuge in neighboring Illinois to prevent a vote on the larger budget measure to which the collective bargaining ban was attached.

The upheaval in Wisconsin, once a leading state in the U.S. union movement, gained outsized national and international attention, serving as a flash point example of the deep divisions in American politics over how to deal with the country's out-of-control budget deficit and debt.

Republicans, newly empowered after seizing control of the U.S. House of Representatives and many state governments in November elections, had promised backers they would institute deep spending cuts, hold the line on or cut taxes and shrink the size of government.

"I applaud all members of the Assembly for showing up, debating the legislation and participating in democracy," Walker said in a statement. "Their action will save jobs, protect taxpayers, reform government, and help balance the budget."

Walker was part of the new, highly conservative wave of Republicans. He has already cut taxes for businesses in Wisconsin and his move against public employee unions was seen by many as part of a nationwide campaign by Republicans to silence organized labor. Similar bargaining restrictions are making their way through Ohio's Legislature. Several other states are debating lesser measures to curb union rights.

'Corruption of democracy'
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, leader of the country's largest labor federation, said the anti-union action in Wisconsin was a "corruption of democracy" that had already led to a backlash and created more solidarity in the labor movement.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, Trumka joked that unions should give Walker their "Mobilizer of the Year" award for galvanizing support for labor among thousands of protesters and in national polls.

If events in Wisconsin do energize activists nationwide, it could be good news for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election bid. Union backing will be critical to Obama's winning a second term. Organized labor has traditionally be a bastion of support for Democrats.

Six to seven decades ago, more than one-third of all American workers were members of labor unions. That number has fallen to about 12 percent overall, with public employee unions left with the only real clout. Nearly 37 percent of public employees belong to a union. In the private sector only about 7.5 percent of workers now have union representation.

Obama has spoken out in support of Wisconsin workers in the standoff with Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans.

Also Thursday, the Justice Department said it was investigating several death threats against Republican senators.

The protracted battle over the bill ended Wednesday evening when Republicans stripped budget measures out of the larger bill, leaving it as a vote only on collective bargaining. That meant that the absent Senate Democrats were no longer needed for a quorum. The Assembly approved the measure Thursday afternoon after a considerable delay caused when police began removing about 100 protesters who were blocking the way into the chamber. The Capitol building had been locked down in advance of that.

The protesters have been a constant presence in the building for more than three weeks, with their numbers swelling to more than 80,000 for one weekend rally.

"This is ultimately about a commitment to the future, so our children don't face even more dire consequences than what we face today," Walker said at a news conference in Milwaukee. He said the bill would prevent layoffs of 1,500 state workers.

The standoff in Wisconsin had continued well after public employees in the state gave in to Walker's demand that they pay more toward their pensions and double their health insurance contribution, a combination equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker. Police and firefighters are exempt.

But protesters stood fast against the portion of the measure that forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation unless approved by referendum.

In the Senate Wednesday night, Republican Sen. Dale Schultz cast the lone "no" vote.

"I voted my conscience which I feel reflects the core beliefs of the majority of voters who sent me here to represent them," Schultz said in a statement.

Nationwide polling supports Schultz. A majority of Wisconsin residents and Americans nationwide oppose Walker's union busting.

Within hours of the Senate vote, a crowd of hundreds of protesters grew to about 7,000 in the Capitol building, a turnout that was as large as any seen inside the building in the three weeks of demonstrations.

"The whole world is watching!" protesters shouted as they pressed up against the heavily guarded entrance to the Senate chamber.

Stalemate ends in matter of minutes
Before Wednesday's Senate vote, it appeared the standoff would persist until Democrats returned to Madison from their self-imposed exile. But in a matter of minutes, it was ended with the Republican parliamentary maneuver.

"In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller. "Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people."

In an interview with The Associated Press, Miller said there is nothing Democrats can do now to stop the bill: "It's a done deal."

Senate Democrats met late Wednesday night to discuss when they might return from Illinois. They said they would not be back on Thursday, but gave no indication when they might come home.

"We are going to watch and see how the Assembly unfolds," said Sen. Spencer Coggs. "There will be fireworks. There will be a lot of people at the Capitol and so it will be hard to get in and out of the Capitol."

Walker had repeatedly argued that collective bargaining is a budget issue, because his proposed changes would give local governments the flexibility to confront the budget cuts needed to close the state's $3.6 billion deficit. He has said that without the changes, he may have needed to lay off 1,500 state workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.

Union leaders weren't happy with Walker's previous offer of concessions, and were furious at the Senate's move to push the measure forward with a quick vote. Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, said after Wednesday's vote that Republicans exercised a "nuclear option."

"Scott Walker and the Republicans' ideological war on the middle class and working families is now indisputable," Neuenfeldt said.

In Indiana, thousands of union members held signs, chanted slogans and cheered speakers outside the Statehouse on Thursday at a rally to protest Republican-backed bills they consider an attack on public education and labor unions.

NBC News contributed to this story.