By David Bailey
MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker said on Sunday he would not back down in his confrontation with state public sector unions and repeated his threat to lay off state workers if the standoff continued.
Walker urged the 14 Senate Democrats who fled Wisconsin to block a vote on his plan to curb public union collective bargaining rights to return, and said he hoped to avoid layoffs.
"If we do not get these changes and the Senate Democrats do not come back, we're going to be forced to make up the savings in layoffs and that to me is unacceptable," Walker said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Tens of thousands of protesters marched against Walker's plan in Wisconsin on Saturday and solidarity rallies for labor rights were held around the country. More protesters were expected at the state capital on Sunday.
Opponents see Walker's proposal as an attempt to break the union movement and the Wisconsin fight has become a flashpoint in a growing national struggle over labor union power.
Wisconsin's state Assembly approved the plan on Friday but Senate Democrats have fled to prevent a vote in that chamber, which also must pass the bill. Walker says the plan is vital to close a budget deficit of $137 million for this fiscal year.
The Democrats left the state because they feared they could be compelled to attend the Senate if they remained. Asked when they would return from various locations in Illinois, Mike Browne, spokesman for Democratic state senate minority leader Mark Miller, said on Sunday, "Not today."
Other states have drawn inspiration from Walker's effort, with similar measures pending in Ohio, Tennessee, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa and Kansas.
In Indiana, Democratic lawmakers also have left the state to deny Republicans a vote on Republican-backed bills that restrict worker rights. Indiana's Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, said he would not consider Democratic concerns about the bill until the lawmakers return.
"While they are subverting the democratic process, there is nothing to talk about," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "When they come back to work, we will talk about their concerns."
The stakes are high for labor groups. More than a third of U.S. public employees, including teachers, police and civil service workers, belong to unions, while only about 6 percent of private sector workers are unionized.
Daniels said the pendulum had swung too far in support of unionized public workers.
"There may have been a time, a century ago, where public employees were mistreated and vulnerable and underpaid. If that was ever a problem, we have over-fixed it," he said.
"Public employees in America -- most decidedly federal employees, but everywhere -- are better paid than the taxpayers that pay their salaries," he said.
Walker's proposal would make state workers contribute more to health insurance and pensions, end government collection of union dues, let workers opt out of unions and require unions to hold recertification votes every year.
Collective bargaining would be allowed only on wage increases up to the rate of inflation.
Walker said a union offer to increase pension and healthcare contributions rang hollow because some were trying to rush through contracts with local authorities that did not include them.
"If they were serious about it, they would have offered up contracts that paid something for healthcare and something more for pensions, but they're not," Walker said.
In a reference to last week's prank call from a blogger posing as billionaire conservative David Koch, an influential backer of Walker and the anti-union effort, Walker said his office discussed but ultimately rejected an idea to send people to disrupt and break up the protests against his plan.
Thinking he was talking to Koch, Walker was caught on tape in the call discussing the idea to disrupt the protests as well as his tactics to lure the runaway Democratic senators back to the state.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Eric Beech and Paul Simao)