By James Kelleher
MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - Wisconsin's governor signed into law on Friday sweeping limits on collective bargaining rights for public sector workers that have ignited a national debate over unions as other states weigh similar curbs.
In a setback for organized labor and its Democratic allies, Republican Governor Scott Walker signed the measure passed by the legislature this week that eliminates most bargaining rights for many of the state's government workers and increases their contributions for pensions and health care.
In the three weeks since Wisconsin took up the issue, mass protests in Madison and other state capitals signal grass-roots support for collective bargaining rights and for unions, analysts say.
Many unions are national organizations, able to muster votes and resources and they could strike back against Republican candidates in the coming 2012 election.
Walker said the law was aimed at protecting taxpayers and jobs, arguing it will improve the business climate and help the state's private sector create 250,000 jobs. He has said the state needs the restrictions on bargaining to deal with funding shortfalls as the state contends with a $3.6 billion deficit in the upcoming two-year budget.
With the signing, Walker canceled layoff notices he sent last week to several Wisconsin public sector unions.
"While tough budget choices certainly still lie ahead, both state and local units of government will not have to do any mass layoffs or direct service reductions because of the reforms contained in the budget repair bill," Walker said in a statement.
To avoid conflicts with their employees, some local governments are rushing to reach contracts with unionized labor to beat the restrictions on bargaining, which take effect when the law is published.
Harsher curbs on collective bargaining were being considered in other states where Republicans hold majorities, including Ohio and Indiana.
In Ohio, which has a newly elected Republican governor and majorities in both houses of the legislature, a House committee planned to hear testimony on a bill already passed by the Senate that would ban strikes by public sector workers, eliminate collective bargaining for law enforcement and other safety workers, and give local governments power to implement their last offer in cases where no agreement can be reached.
It was uncertain when Ohio's House might vote on the bill, or if lawmakers will make changes.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mayers; Editing by Andrew Stern and Vicki Allen)