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Today, in Wisconsin, thousands of protesters descended on the state capitol to oppose a budget proposal by the new Republican governor, Scott Walker. Governor Walker wants to strip government unions of most bargaining rights. He argues that would help bring public sector benefits in line with the private sector.

As Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports, many union members think the governor is trying to bust their union.

(SOUNDBITE OF POUNDING)

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

SHAWN JOHNSON: All this week, workers have flocked to the capitol in giant waves of protest. Today, they're outside at a rally on the capitol lawn and picketing the streets on the capitol square. Crowds numbering as many as 13,000 have at times shut down traffic. Unions contend today's crowd is closer to 30,000.

So many Madison public school teachers called in sick today that the district closed down.

Inside, protesters in the capitol's hallways and rotunda are chanting: kill the bill.

Unidentified Group: Kill the bill, kill the bill, kill the bill, kill the bill.

JOHNSON: The bill would patch a $137 million hole in the state's current budget, but in the process rework collective bargaining laws that were written 50 years ago.

A public hearing on it that started at 10 in the morning yesterday went until 3 this morning, when even though people were still waiting to speak, lawmakers shut it down.

Bryan Kennedy heads the union AFT-Wisconsin, which represents 17,000 government employees.

BRYAN KENNEDY: It keeps getting bigger and bigger every day. He needs to back down. He needs to leave the public sector workers alone. What we're seeing now are even more private sector workers showing up. It's just getting bigger and bigger because they know this is an assault on all workers. This is not just an assault on people who work for the state.

JOHNSON: As you might expect, Governor Walker and his supporters frame the issue much differently. Walker campaigned on bringing public employee benefits in line with the private sector. Right now, most state workers, including employees of Wisconsin Public Radio, pay next to nothing toward their pension and favorable rates for health care. Governor Walker proposes what would amount to about an 8 percent pay cut for workers. He calls it a modest proposal.

SCOTT WALKER: When people look at this, particularly for people outside of government, they look at this and say this is a pretty good deal.

JOHNSON: It's also a place that governors in other states are looking to find savings as they face crushing budget deficits.

But it's the other part of Walker's plan that's stirring unions here into a frenzy: He wants to eliminate the right of government employee unions to bargain for health care and pensions and limit their ability to bargain for wages. Governor Walker says bargaining would be pointless, the state has nothing to negotiate.

WALKER: The truth is we don't have money to offer. We don't have finances to offer. This is what we have to offer. And if you're going to negotiate, you got to have something to offer. We don't have something. So we're laying it out on the table.

JOHNSON: State clerical worker Mike Lowery calls it a war on unions.

MIKE LOWERY: Hell, yeah. If they can do it to people in Wisconsin with its historic working-class roots, it can be done anywhere.

JOHNSON: Professor Gary Chaison is an expert on labor relations at Clark University in Massachusetts. He says New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie has made a name for himself by talking tough with unions. But Chaison says what Scott Walker is doing here goes beyond that.

GARY CHAISON: In most states, they're just willing to say: We're going to be tough in bargaining. But what's happening in Wisconsin is they're saying: We're going to do this without bargaining, and that's quite different thing.

JOHNSON: A similar scene could soon play out in Ohio, where newly- elected Republican Governor John Kasich wants to end collective bargaining for public employee unions.

In Wisconsin, Republicans control the legislature, and the bill could pass quickly, though unions say some GOP lawmakers are now backing down. Even if unions win this fight, the consequences could be dire. Governor Walker says it could lead to the layoffs of thousands of state and local employees.

For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison.

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