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Thousands of Wisconsin union workers protest budget plan

By Jeff Mayers

MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - More than 10,000 union public employees and supporters packed the Capitol Square and the inside of the statehouse on Tuesday to protest Gov. Scott Walker's budget plan to strip many bargaining rights from state and local government workers.

Republicans legislators hope to get the bill, announced by the new Republican governor last Friday, to Walker's desk by the end of the week. The office of the Republican legislative leaders say they have the votes for passage.

Republicans took over majority control of the Wisconsin legislature and won the governorship in the 2010 election.

Protesters chanted and held signs while the Joint Finance Committee heard testimony on the bill. The committee planned to go into the night to hear from hundreds signed up to speak.

Arlyn Halvorson, a farmer, highway worker and AFSCME member who is also president of the McFarland School Board near Madison, urged lawmakers to step back and take another look.

"It's one thing to do fiscal business and it's another to do political business and take people's rights away," he said.

Republicans said collective bargaining rules must be changed so governments can avoid laying off thousands of workers due to a short-term budget gap of $137 million and a two-year budget hole estimated by Walker at $3.6 billion.

Police estimated some 13,000 people attended the protest. Walker is due to unveil a two-year budget plan on February 22.

A growing number of deficit-ridden states have tried to curb expenses by going after public employee union contracts and pensions.

(Reporting by Jeff Mayers, editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)

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