Wisconsin lawmakers voted Thursday to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state's public workers, ending a heated standoff over labour rights and delivering a key victory to Republicans who have targeted unions in efforts to slash government spending nationwide.
The state's Assembly passed Gov. Scott Walker's explosive proposal 53-42 without any Democratic support and with four Republicans crossing party lines and voting against the bill. Protesters in the gallery erupted into screams of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" as Republican lawmakers filed out of the chamber and into the speaker's office.
The state's Senate used a procedural move to bypass missing Democrats and move the measure forward Wednesday night, meaning the plan that delivers one of the strongest blows to union power in years now requires only Walker's signature to take effect.
''We were willing to talk, we were willing to work, but in the end at some point the public wants us to move forward' —Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
He says he'll sign the measure, which he introduced to plug a $137 million US budget shortfall, as quickly as possible — which could be as early as Friday.
"We were willing to talk, we were willing to work, but in the end at some point the public wants us to move forward," Walker said before the Assembly's vote.
Walker's plan has touched off a national debate in the U.S. over labour rights for public employees and its implementation would be a key victory for Republicans, many of whom have targeted unions amid efforts to slash government spending.
Similar bargaining restrictions are making their way through Ohio's legislature and several other states are debating measures to curb union rights in smaller doses.
In Wisconsin, the proposal has drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the state Capitol for weeks of demonstrations and led 14 Senate Democrats to flee to Illinois to prevent that chamber from having enough members present to pass a plan containing spending provisions.
Senate passed bill on Wednesday
But a special committee of lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly voted Wednesday to take all spending measures out of the legislation and the full Senate approved it minutes later, setting up Thursday's vote in the Assembly.
Walker has 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 US deficit. He has said without the changes, he may have needed to lay off 1,500 state workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.
The measure forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation unless approved by referendum. It also requires public workers to 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.
Earlier Thursday, police carried dozens of protesters from a hallway leading to the state assembly as Democratic representatives pounded on the locked door of the chamber, demanding to be let in to the room where the vote on the union bill was to be held.
At least 100 protesters packed the hallway, pounding drums, while the Democratic representatives gathered in front of the doors in the morning. At least 50 protesters were carried out by police, and the building was locked down briefly while officers did a security review.