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Wisconsin protesters rally on layoff threat

MADISON, Wisconsin -- Thousands of union supporters protested Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposals on Saturday at the state capital, a day after the state's chief executive followed through on his threat to issue layoff warning notices to unions representing state workers.

Joining the crowd was liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, who praised the protesters gathered in the battle over union bargaining rights as joining the history of the American labor movement.

Walker, a Republican, has proposed increased payments for health care and pension benefits for public workers and stripping their unions of most of their collective bargaining rights, a move he says is necessary to address a budget gap of US$3.6 billion for the coming two years.

The warning notices, sent on Friday to at least 13 unions, do not represent actual layoffs for the state's 300,000 public employees but take the war of words between the newly elected governor and state Democrats to a new level.

Moore told the crowd, which was smaller than it has been the last two weekends of the ongoing protests, that the nation was awash in wealth, concentrated in the hands of a few, but the public has been cowed into not standing up for itself.

“Madison is only the beginning,” Moore said. “The rich have overplayed their hand.

“There was no revolt, until now here in Wisconsin,” he added.

The crowd estimate was put at about 12,000 people, smaller than previous crowds that numbered in the tens of thousands.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin reminded the rally of the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

“What they did was change the course of history,” she said. “That is what you are doing today.”

Supporting Walker's proposals, meanwhile, the Americans for Prosperity organization was in the midst of a bus tour due to conclude on Sunday in Madison. The tour started on Thursday in Kenosha, with the aim of hitting 10 cities.

Walker's bill remains stalled in the Wisconsin Senate where all 14 Democrats fled to neighboring Illinois two weeks ago to deny the measure the quorum it needs to pass in the chamber.

Dave Hansen, one of the 14, issued a statement on Friday saying: “it has become increasingly apparent that Governor Walker is not interested in compromise, but instead appears intent on prolonging the impasse.”

Behind-the-scenes negotiations have failed to produce a compromise. Just one Democrat is needed for a quorum.

The absent Democrats have been threatened with US$100-a-day fines and the prospect of being arrested and taken to the Senate if they return to Wisconsin.

With no action expected on the bill, Walker said he will be forced to send out layoff notices to 1,500 state employees, saving some US$30 million.

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 Wisconsin protesters rally on layoff threat 
A protester raises his fingers after putting his mask on the statue “Forward” at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, Saturday, March 5. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers are on their 18th day of demonstrations at the Capitol. (AP)

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