Wisconsin Gov. Walker threatens to trigger layoffs for thousands of public workers

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011

MADISON, WIS. - The jobs of thousands of state and local workers slipped into deeper jeopardy Friday, as Gov. Scott Walker threatened to trigger as many as 12,000 layoffs beginning next week unless lawmakers enact his plan to strip public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights.

Though unions have offered concessions they say would close the state's budget gap, Walker remained determined to achieve a resolution that he said would give state and local governments leverage to limit employee costs well into the future.

Without legislation to pare back employee health-care and pension benefits while repealing most collective bargaining rights for many public employees, Walker said he would be forced to make cuts elsewhere in the budget that could lead to massive numbers of state and local employees losing their jobs.

"If we want to avoid the layoffs that will eventually come at the state and local level, the only way to achieve that" is to pass the bill, Walker said.

The layoffs would mark an escalation of a battle that has paralyzed the state capital. Fourteen Democratic state senators have fled Wisconsin to prevent the state Senate from having a quorum for considering the measure. Walker backed off earlier remarks that the layoffs would begin this week.

Nationally, Walker's efforts to break the power of public service unions - being replicated to some degree in several other Republican-led states - have thrown public employee unions into an existential crisis.

As a group, public employees generally earn less than comparably educated private-sector employees, but they tend to enjoy far better health-care and retirement benefits. The issue of their compensation has gained particular resonance at a time when states and municipalities across the country are struggling with huge budget deficits and ballooning costs for employees' health-care and pension obligations.

The controversy has lifted Walker to national prominence, and he says he is determined to make Wisconsin a leader in remaking the way state and local governments deal with their employees.

The clashes over public employee unions continued in other state capitals. In Indianapolis, hundreds of union supporters demonstrated at an otherwise quiet statehouse Friday as there appeared to be no end in sight to a partisan standoff that has paralyzed the legislature.

"I'm here to help save the jobs of thousands of hardworking Hoosiers," said Jim Szucs, a Teamster from South Bend, Ind.

Indiana's House Democrats remained in Urbana, Ill., denying the Republican majority a quorum it needs to pass legislation.

In New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie has made public employees prime targets of his efforts to curtail spending, union members rallied in support of Wisconsin public employees. Meanwhile, union leaders and their allies are planning to hold rallies at state capitols around the country Saturday in opposition to Walker's proposal.

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