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Labor Protests Draw Tens of Thousands Across US

by Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK  - Tens of thousands of people protested in Wisconsin on Saturday against a state government push to curb the power of public sector unions, sparking solidarity rallies for labor rights around the United States.

Thousands of supporters of workers' rights rally in front of the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011, to help protest the Wisconsin governor's union busting plan to strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights. Protesters see the proposals as an effort to weaken the labor movement. Other states considering similar proposals include Ohio, Tennessee, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa and Kansas.

Several thousand protesters gathered in New York City, about 1,000 people turned out in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, several hundred rallied Austin, Texas, and about 100 people joined a protest in Miami.

At the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison, thousands of protesters chanted underneath Republican Governor Scott Walker's office window "Hey hey, ho ho, Scott Walker has got to go."

"Union busting is wrong."," said Joe Soto, a 56-year-old steamfitter from Reedsburg, northwest of Madison.

Wisconsin's state Assembly on Friday approved Walker's proposal to strip public sector unions of most collective bargaining rights. The plan now needs state Senate approval, but Senate Democrats have fled Wisconsin to prevent a vote.

The bid by Wisconsin Republicans to try and balance the state budget by rewriting labor laws has turned into a national standoff with Republicans and business interests on one side, and Democrats and union groups on the other.

"When a governor refuses to invest in the people who educate our children and keep us safe, he needs to know this will not stand," actor Bradley Whitford, who played a White House staffer on "The West Wing" TV series and is a Wisconsin native, told the protesters in Madison.

"UN-AMERICAN"

The stakes are high for labor groups because more than a third of U.S. public employees, including teachers, police and civil service workers, belong to unions. Only about six percent of private sector workers are unionized.

"We bailed out Goldman Sachs, we bailed out Wall Street, we bailed out GM, but the hell with our teachers, our fire fighters, our nurses, our city workers, our state workers -- I'm here because that's unjust, unfair," said Raymond Wohl, a teacher for 20 years, at the Chicago protest.

Doug Frank, 51, said he drove three-and-a-half hours from his home in Crosby to attend the protest in Austin.

"This is finally the one that pushed me over the edge," said Frank, an oil and gas laboratory technician. "What they're trying to do (in Wisconsin) is very heavy-handed; it's un-American."

In New York, people waved signs reading "Cut bonuses, not teachers," "Unions make us strong," and "Wall St is destroying America," and wore stickers that read "We are all Wisconsin."

Anne O'Byrne, 44, a philosophy professor at Stony Brook University who brought her daughter Sophia, 2, to the New York rally, said she was disturbed by events in Wisconsin.

"If we don't have collective bargaining rights I don't know what's left for workers in America," she said. "It seems important to me to resist any attempt to take away those union rights that have in fact brought us so much over the years."

John Cody, 26, of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, said unions were "under assault" in the United States and some protesters had drawn inspiration from the popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

"Egypt is inspiring Americans and labor movements," he said. "Unions need to work like the corporations in some ways in that the world's become a globalized economy so unions need to show acts of solidarity not only across the United States but across the world."

Additional reporting by James Kelleher and David Bailey in Madison, Christing Stebbins in Chicago, Jim Leckrone in Columbus and Thomas Brown in Miami, editing by John Whitesides

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