MADISON, Wis. — Facing widening Republican attacks on organized labor, Democrats struck back Tuesday with legislative walkouts and boisterous rallies across the Midwest to defend one of their core constituencies.
In Wisconsin, where the state Senate has been paralyzed because Democrats fled to block Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to strip collective bargaining rights from government workers, the governor warned he would send 1,500 layoff notices unless his proposal passes. In Indiana, Democrats in the state Assembly vanished, depriving that body of the quorum needed to pass a right-to-work law and limit government unions' powers.
And in Ohio, an estimated 5,500 protesters stood elbow to elbow in and outside the Capitol chanting "Kill the bill!" as a legislative committee took up a proposal that would similarly neuter government unions.
"Change is difficult," said Ohio state Sen. Shannon Jones, a Republican and the bill's author. "It doesn't matter how many people show up here."
Unions rallied from Michigan to Tennessee to Colorado to show support in what many see as an existential test for organized labor.
"It goes to the very core of the labor movement's ability to be viable," said Robert Bruno, director of the labor education program at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "You're talking about a national conflict between corporate America and its conservative allies and the New Deal coalition."
The often noisy battle — sometimes punctuated by shouting matches — played out in a swath of states whose voters in November decisively came down on the side of conservatives. Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio all saw their statehouses switch to Republican control, and the GOP picked up governorships in Wisconsin and Ohio.
Chris Edwards, an economist at the Cato Institute who opposes public sector collective bargaining, said that Walker and other officials may have in mind such conservative heroes as President Ronald Reagan, whose firing of striking air traffic controllers helped realign relations between government and unions.
Democrats contend that the newly emboldened GOP is trying to eliminate one of the core supporters of their party — organized labor. "It turns politics upside-down," said Indiana state Sen. Vi Simpson, the leader of Democrats in that chamber.
Unions in all states say they're willing to make concessions to help states balance their budgets, but contended that Republicans are engaged in a campaign to undermine organized labor. They got a boost Tuesday from a Gallup poll that found that 61 percent of Americans disapprove of stripping public workers of their ability to collectively bargain.
Not every Republican governor is taking the same path as Walker in Wisconsin. While praising Walker, Florida's new governor, Rick Scott, said in a radio interview that he believes public sector workers have a right to collectively bargain. New GOP governors in Michigan and Pennsylvania have also said they would not go after government unions' ability to negotiate wages and benefits.
The partisan tone started in Wisconsin, where Walker exempted police, firefighter and state trooper unions from the cuts and loss of collective bargaining. Those unions are more likely to back Republicans. The head of the state troopers union in a statement said he regretted endorsing Walker last year.
Liberals have focused on contributions to Walker from the political action committee of Koch Industries, the nation's second-largest privately held company, controlled by brothers who have long been active in conservative and libertarian politics. That entity gave $43,000 to Walker in November, and one of the groups the brothers sponsor, Americans for Prosperity, has been organizing counter-protests in Madison. In contrast, the teachers union in Wisconsin backed Walker's Democratic opponent and spent $1.6 million in the race.