US & Canada

Wisconsin protests: State workers brace for lay-offs

Protesters in Wisconsin's state capitol
Image caption Demonstrators have filled the Wisconsin capitol for nearly three weeks in protest over the Republican bill

State workers in Wisconsin are bracing for lay-offs after Republican Governor Scott Walker told unions he intends to cut jobs because the state Senate has not approved a budget-cutting bill.

Mr Walker has demanded at least one of 14 Democrats who fled to prevent a vote on the bill return.

The Republican proposal would strip workers of their collective bargaining rights.

The news comes amid weeks of protests by union employees in the state.

Mr Walker's economic plan stalled last month when Senate Democrats fled to the state of Illinois in order to avoid voting on the bill.

The Republican majority needs at least one Democrat present to give the quorum needed for a vote.

Senate Republicans voted on Thursday to hold the missing Democrats in contempt and force police to bring them back to the capitol.

'Easing the deficit'

Mr Walker has said his proposal would balance the state's budget without raising taxes or cutting jobs, in an effort to ease the state's budget deficit, which is projected to reach $3.6bn (£2.2bn) over the next two years.

The bill, which must pass in both chambers of the legislature, is part of a broader economic policy that aims to get the deficit under control in part by restricting public employees' collective bargaining rights and by requiring them to contribute more to their pensions and healthcare.

State unions have said they will agree to Mr Walker's proposed changes to their benefits - which would amount to an 8% pay cut - as long as they retain collective bargaining rights.

Critics of Mr Walker's proposal say it is intended to weaken the power of the unions, which tend to back the Democrats in elections.

Mr Walker said he had to notify employees of the lay-offs on Friday so the state could make up for the $30m (£18m) savings he had anticipated had the bill been passed already.

He has said the restrictions on public-sector unions are necessary to give local governments the flexibility to make cuts quickly in order to meet budget shortfalls.

Capitol access

On Tuesday, the governor put forward a budget proposal as part of his broader economic plan which would cut $1.5bn in funding to public schools and local government.

Mr Walker said it would enable the private sector to create 250,000 jobs in the next four years.

Republicans, who in November took control of the US House of Representatives and state capitols across the country, have praised Mr Walker's bid to balance the budget without raising taxes.

Meanwhile, a final group of about 50 protesters at the Wisconsin state capitol left on Thursday about two hours after a judge ordered the building closed during non-business hours.

"We decided it would be best for our image to leave tonight peacefully and come back tomorrow," Matt Rowe, a demonstrator at the capitol building, told the Associated Press news agency.

The judge's ruling also said the state's move to limit access to the capitol building since Monday was unconstitutional and ordered Wisconsin to grant better access to the public next week.

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