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Labor unions and their supporters plan protests in more than a dozen states this week. Those demonstrations will be in support of government workers in Wisconsin, who could lose many of their collective bargaining rights as a result of legislation there. But there's a reason the protests are going national now. Anti-union efforts are underway in other states. NPR's Richard Harris has more.

RICHARD HARRIS: National labor unions are marshalling their forces around the power struggle in Wisconsin. But history professor Stephen Meyer at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee says a lot more is at stake than the unions in this one state.

Professor STEPHEN MEYER (History, University of Wisconsin): Wisconsin has become ground zero for the national labor movement. Already we've got Ohio, possibly New Jersey and other states that are readying similar types of legislation.

HARRIS: Ohio governor John Kasich, for example, is pushing for legislation to eliminate collective bargaining for state employees. Yesterday, union supporters came out to protest.

Crowd: (Chanting) Kasich no, unions yes. Kasich no, unions yes. Kasich no, unions yes...

HARRIS: Kathleen Arthur, a retired teacher from the Cleveland area, says teachers would be willing to negotiate over pay and benefits to help the state deal with its financial troubles. But that should be done over the bargaining table, not by fiat.

Ms. KATHLEEN ARTHUR (Retired teacher): Both sides need to be represented. This is America. Everybody has a voice. Not just the party in charge. Everyone has a voice.

HARRIS: If you ask Paul Mishler from Indiana University in South Bend, this is only nominally about state budgets.

Professor PAUL MISHLER (Labor Studies, Indiana University): This, quote, "fiscal crisis" or what they see as a fiscal crisis is really an excuse to go after the social and political strength of the unions.

HARRIS: The impetus for change is chiefly coming from Republican legislators who realize if they can weaken the unions, they also weaken the Democrats, who are often backed by labor. Mishler also sees it as another front in the struggle between businesses and workers.

In Indiana, the Chamber of Commerce is a driving force behind efforts to make paying union dues optional. Republican representative Gerald Torr ushered that bill through a key committee on Monday.

State Representative GERALD TORR (Republican, Indiana): If the union's providing a good service and all of those employees decide to continue paying dues, this bill will have zero effect on them and they will still have the same collective bargaining rights that they have today.

HARRIS: Actually, in the 22 states where union dues are voluntary, unions are exceptionally weak. People tend not to volunteer to pay union dues any more than they volunteer to pay taxes. Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University, says so-called right-to-work states, where union dues are voluntary, do tend to see more job growth.

Dr. RICHARD VEDDER (Economics, Ohio University): The purpose of unions is to raise wages for their workers. And in many cases they succeed in doing so. However, in doing this, they raise labor costs.

HARRIS: As companies try to contain their costs, more settle in states where they don't have to pay as much. And 2011 is proving to be a golden opportunity for businesses to press their cause. With Republicans in the ascendancy in many state houses, they have the upper hand against unions, which are traditionally allied with Democrats. And Republicans have support from their voters, who look at union pay and benefits as simply too rich.

Vedder cites the United Auto Workers Union as part of the reason General Motors went bankrupt. So he sees a system that's out of balance. But James Gregory, a labor professor at the University of Washington, argues that even if you aren't in a union you should be concerned about what could happen.

Professor JAMES GREGORY (History, University of Washington): It represents not just a loss for unions. It represents sort of more fundamentally a potential loss of important rights, what are fundamentally civil rights.

HARRIS: Up until now, Gregory says Americans' civil rights have been expanding. He argues that if workers lose the right to band together under unions, that would mark a turning point in the nation's history.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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