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Wisconsin Dem vows to fight GOP plan as union supporters rally here

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Union workers and supporters ignored wintry weather Saturday as they rallied downtown to protest efforts by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to strip most public employees in that state of their collective bargaining rights.

The rally came as one of the 14 runaway Wisconsin senators said in an appearance at Operation PUSH Headquarters on the South Side that she and the other Democratic legislators won’t return home until the GOP governor agrees to negotiate on his plan to end collective bargaining for public workers.

“His agenda is wrong for Wisconsin, and we’re standing our ground,” Wisconsin State Sen. Lena Taylor said.

Organizers estimated about 2,000 people braved snow and cold winds to attend the rally outside the James R. Thompson Center. There were no arrests, police said.

“We want to let Wisconsin workers know we support them,” said Tom Beck, a city worker and member of Carpenters Local 13, who carried a sign reading “United We Stand, Divided We Beg.”

Many of the workers at the rally want to make sure efforts in Wisconsin to curb union benefits don’t spread to other states, including Illinois.

“There’s a ripple effect that worries me,” said Beck, a union member for nearly 35 years. “Collective bargaining has brought us this far. I put my kids through college and make a decent living because I’m in a union.”

Some of those at the labor rally said they want to demonstrate that union workers will stick together to defend their rights.

“I think it’s important to stand by union members regardless of what state they’re in,” said Mike Murray, an English teacher at Stagg High School in Palos Hills, who attended the protest with his wife, Tanja, and their two young daughters. “They’re going to be fighting the same fight that we are. This is kind of a watershed moment for everybody nationwide.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said the stalemate in Wisconsin is a pivotal moment in the struggle for labor rights.

“What’s at stake in Wisconsin is a basic concept of American liberty and freedom,” Durbin said, drawing applause and roars from the crowd. And Durbin made sure the Democratic senators — all of whom, like Taylor, fled Wisconsin to deprive the Republican-majority Senate of the quorum it needs to vote on Walker’s proposed budget — knew they are “always welcome in Illinois.”

The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly on Friday approved the budget that includes the curb on collective bargaining rights, which Walker and GOP leaders have argued is necessary to cut expenses and help erase a deficit.

At PUSH, Taylor scoffed at those claims, contending Walker’s effort is aimed at breaking state unions and curbing their political influence rather than at balancing the budget.

“He’s tried to run this train right over Wisconsin workers,” Taylor said.

But she held out cautious hope that continuing union pressure will prompt GOP leaders in Wisconsin to ultimately accept a compromise that would keep union rights intact.

“I see it ending in favor of the workers,” she said.

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