AUGUSTA – More than 500 people rallied Saturday outside the State House to support state workers and their union, and at least 50 Maine Tea Party members countered with a rally on another side of the building.

The pro-union rally was partly a reaction to Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to reduce pension benefits for retired state employees and teachers, and partly an expression of support for protesters in Wisconsin who oppose that state’s proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers.

Ed Lachowicz, a student at Kennebec Valley Community College, said the two governors are trying to dismantle all unions.

“There’s at least four right-to-work bills in the Legislature right now, basically to take our union funding away, in essence bust the union,” said Lachowicz, who attended the larger rally in a parking lot immediately south of the Capitol. “My father was in the union for 24 years, and I stand with them.”

Peter Harring, a Tea Party member, said his group assembled in the cold between the State House and the Burton M. Cross State Office Building to show support for LePage and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who, like LePage, is a Republican.

“We’re broke, and everybody is going to have to make some tough choices and sacrifices,” said Harring, a carpenter from Auburn. “We have a huge (pension) liability that has to be paid in full in 2028.”

LePage’s proposed changes are estimated to save $524 million over the next two years and affect about 28,000 retired state employees and teachers.

Walker, who won his job in November with tea party support, proposes to eliminate nearly all public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Over the past few weeks, thousands of people have rallied in favor of workers’ rights outside the Wisconsin Capitol.

LePage supports right-to-work legislation that currently is being advanced by Republican lawmakers. Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, has two bills that address unions’ ability to collect dues. The first, L.D. 309, would address public employees. The second would address all unions in the private sector.

Duane Lugdon of Bangor said he went to the pro-union rally Saturday in Augusta as a representative of the International Steel Workers to support Maine’s pulp and paper mill workers and state employees.

“This is all about a rush to Third World status,” Lugdon said. “Workers don’t deserve it, and we’re not going to stand for it. Workers didn’t get us into this mess. If you want to know who’s at fault, point to Wall Street.”

Emery Deabay of Bucksport said it’s not fair to “balance the budget on the backs of the workers.”

“We’re in this predicament because of unscrupulous CEOs and corporations that want to fill their pockets,” Deabay said. “They caused this mess and should be in jail. We’re here to make sure the governor doesn’t try to punish workers when he balances the budget and take away their rights and benefits.”

Harvey Ammerman of Madison, a 40-year union member and millwright who worked in paper mills and power-generating facilities in Maine, said Mainers need to know that there is big money behind these kinds of actions.

He said billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch have long used their wallets to promote fiscal conservatism and combat regulation. He said the Koch brothers are pumping millions into a nationwide effort to break the public employee unions to shift the blame for the nation’s economic ills from irresponsible corporations to public employees.

The New York Times reported last week that Koch Industries was one of the biggest contributors to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s election campaign.

Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, a group critical of what it sees as the rising influence of corporate interests in American politics, said in the New York Times article that the Koch brothers are using their money to create a facade of grass-roots support for their favorite causes.

Ammerman said Mainers are not going to allow that to occur in their state.

“It’s a corrupt system, and they want us to take the fall for everything, and it’s not going to happen,” Ammerman said at the rally.

Dan Demeritt, LePage’s spokesman, stopped by Saturday’s rallies.

Demeritt said LePage’s budget doesn’t have anything to do with collective bargaining rights or union rules. “It will be a topic, but separate from the budget,” he said.

Demeritt said LePage believes everyone should have the right to organize, but thinks joining a union should not be a condition of employment. In Maine, non-union members must pay their “fair share” for benefits they receive from union negotiations.

“The state has what’s called ‘Fair Share,’ ” he said. “If you’re a member of the union, you pay about $20. If you’re not a member, the state still compels you to pay $10.90 for what’s called Fair Share.”

In his weekly recorded radio address Saturday, LePage said workers in Maine should have the freedom to pursue their happiness as they see fit. If an employee’s workplace has a responsive and effective union, he said, the employee should have every right to become a member and contribute.

But while attending the National Governors Association winter meeting in Washington on Saturday, he predicted that his drive to limit unions’ ability to collect dues will create a political firestorm similar to what is happening in Wisconsin.

“Once they start reading our budget, they are going to leave Wisconsin and come to Maine, because we are going after right-to-work,” he said at the governors’ event.

His weekly radio address outlined his stand in more detail.

“If you do not believe union membership helps in your pursuit of happiness, you should also have the right to decline participation,” he said.

Saturday’s pro-union rally was organized by the group MoveOn.org.

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind contributed to this report.