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Idaho passes Republican bill to curb union rights

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Idaho state legislature approved a bill on Tuesday to strip public school teachers of many of their collective bargaining rights while protesters in five states rallied against Republican efforts to curb union power.

The Idaho bill, which excludes issues like class size and workloads from negotiations for the state's 12,000 unionized teachers, was given final approval by the Republican-led House and is expected to be signed by Republican Governor Butch Otter.

The bill also eliminates teacher tenure, limits the duration of teacher labor contracts to one year and removes seniority as a factor in determining the order of layoffs.

Idaho is one of several U.S. states to take up Republican plans for sweeping restrictions on public sector unions in what has become a growing national debate over labor union power.

Republicans say the proposals are needed to rescue recession-battered budgets from deficits, but Democrats and union supporters say they are an attack on organized labor that could linger as an issue into the 2012 presidential elections.

Most national attention has focused on the stalemate in Wisconsin over Republican Governor Scott Walker's proposal to curb union rights, which sparked large protests in the capital Madison.

Wisconsin Senate Democrats have fled the state to block a vote on Walker's proposal, but e-mails released on Tuesday showed Walker has indicated he may be willing to compromise on elements of his plan.

The e-mails, released following a Freedom of Information Act request from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper, show Senate Democrats and a senior Walker aide discussed some flexibility on issues such as his demand for annual votes to keep unions in existence.

Protests against Walker's plan continued in Madison on Tuesday. Similar Republican plans to curb public union rights sparked new protests in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Iowa.

DEATH OF THE MIDDLE CLASS

In Indianapolis, where most Indiana House Democrats remain out of state to block a vote on a bill they say is anti-worker, union protesters staged a mock "funeral" for the middle class with a New Orleans-style musical procession in honor of Mardi Gras.

In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich touted a plan that passed the state Senate last week to curb collective bargaining rights of public employees and ban them from going on strike.

In his "State of the State" speech, Kasich said the bill, which still must be passed by the Ohio House, was necessary to give local governments more flexibility in their budgets.

"Frankly, folks, the provisions of collective bargaining reform are examples of what we want to do to allow people to control their costs," said Kasich, setting off cat-calls from the gallery in the legislative chamber.

Pro-union demonstrators packed the Capitol rotunda after the speech, shouting, "Kill the bill."

In Michigan's state capital Lansing, hundreds of pro-union protesters jammed the rotunda and gathered outside the Capitol to oppose a bill to give emergency authority to break labor contracts to revive failing schools and cities. The state's largest school district of Detroit is under emergency management.

The Michigan House approved the measure in February. A final vote in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 26-12 majority, is expected on Wednesday.

In Iowa, hundreds of union workers crowded the state House chamber to protest a bill that would prevent negotiations on healthcare benefits for government workers and forbid union workers from negotiating layoff schedules.

The measure will be debated in the Republican-led Iowa House on Wednesday. It is expected to run into trouble in the Democratic-majority state Senate.

(Additional reporting by Kay Henderson, David Bailey, Andrew Stern, Jim Leckrone, Susan Guyett and Laura Zuckerman; Editing by John Whitesides)

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