STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And on this holiday, we're following demonstrations across the Arab world as well as in the United States, including Madison, Wisconsin. Demonstrators there oppose a plan by the state's Republican governor, Scott Walker.
Democratic state senators fled the state in order to prevent a vote on a bill. The governor wants to cut the pay and benefits of state workers to help balance the state budget. And what's made this explosive is that the governor also wants to limit unions' collective bargaining rights.
NPR's David Schaper reports.
(Soundbite of protest)
DAVID SCHAPER: Snow, slush, rain and sleet kept the size of yesterday's crowd down and forced the protests indoors, but thousands still packed into the Capitol rotunda. And they crammed themselves up to 10 deep along the rails of the upper floors to voice their displeasure with the Republican Governor Scott Walker's so-called budget-repair bill.
(Soundbite of drums and chanting)
SCHAPER: The legislation would increase what Wisconsin's public employees pay toward their pensions and health insurance, and it would strip away nearly all collective bargaining rights.
Union leaders for the state's teachers, healthcare workers and other public employees say they'll give the governor the financial concessions he wants -amounting to a pay cut of 8 percent or more - but they stand firm on what they call union-busting proposals.
Angela Aldous is a nurse at the University of Wisconsin Hospital's cancer unit.
Ms. ANGELA ALDOUS (Nurse): Union-busting is disgusting. Baby, I see a lot of disgusting stuff where I work, and this is the most disgusting thing I've ever seen.
SCHAPER: Many of Wisconsin's teachers will be back in classrooms today. Classes were canceled at several districts for a day or two - and even three days in Madison last week - as teachers called in sick so they could protest.
In many Wisconsin districts, Presidents Day is not a holiday, so union leaders urged teachers that don't have the day off to return to their schools. But Madison's teachers voted by a razor-thin margin to stay out and protest one more day. They'll go back to their classrooms tomorrow, says eighth-grade special education teacher Deborah Kades.
Ms. DEBORAH KADES (Teacher): There's a lot of concern about the kids. I mean, really, that was the bulk of the discussion, was what's better for the students.
SCHAPER: But Kades and other teachers argue that what Walker is trying to do will hurt students more in the long term. They say eliminating most collective bargaining rights will make it easier to fire veteran teachers, increase class sizes, and eliminate aides. But Scott Walker is refusing to back down.
Governor SCOTT WALKER (Republican, Wisconsin): We're willing to take this as long as it takes, because in the end we're doing the right thing. And for us, we have to do this.
SCHAPER: Walker told Fox News Sunday the 14 Democratic state senators who fled Wisconsin to deny Republicans an opportunity to vote on the budget proposal should come back and do their jobs.
Gov. WALKER (Republican, Wisconsin): If you want to participate in democracy, you've got to be in the arena. And the arena is right here in Madison, Wisconsin. It's not hiding out in Rockford, Illinois or Chicago or anywhere else out there.
SCHAPER: But Democrats say they're prepared to stay out of the Capitol until the governor is willing to compromise.
Elsewhere in Wisconsin, the developments in Madison dominate conversations.
Mr. STEVE ARMSTRONG: I'm fully behind Governor Walker. I think it's time the unions have to take a step back.
SCHAPER: At this bustling IHOP during breakfast Sunday in Janesville, Wisconsin, Steve Armstrong says he voted for Walker to take just this kind of hard-line stance.
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Got to fix the budget deficit, and we have to make hard decisions. It's hard on everybody. It's been hard on the private sector for a long time. So it's just a step we have to take.
SCHAPER: Postal worker Todd Taylor agrees that Wisconsin's public employees should pay more toward pensions and health insurance, but...
Mr. TODD TAYLOR (Postal Worker): At this point I'm in support of the protesters. I am against him trying to take away the collective bargaining. Being in a union myself, that's what I have a problem with.
SCHAPER: But like many in Wisconsin, Taylor and others say they want both sides to try to reach compromise - and soon.
David Schaper, NPR News, in Madison, Wisconsin.