By James Kelleher
MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - Wisconsin lawmakers, after three weeks of angry protests, were expected on Thursday to vote on, and likely approve, Republican Governor Scott Walker's plan to curb public workers' union rights.
What began in one heartland state as a move last month by the Republican governor to curtail state workers' bargaining rights has evolved into a showdown across the country over efforts by budget-strapped state governments to rein in the power of unions.
Wisconsin's Republican-led Senate on Wednesday night outflanked Democrats' three-week boycott to approve the heart of the plan. The Republican-led State Assembly may act swiftly -- but not without more raucous protests.
Some 10,000 protesters surrounded the Capitol building, with a large crowd gathering underneath Governor Scott Walker's window, noisily accompanied by drums.
Capitol police briefly closed the building and hauled away some protesters -- amid chants of "This is Our House" -- which postponed the start of the assembly's debate for a short time.
"It's still like the first day of the protests here," said Karin Kinsley, 52. "Energetic. Hopeful. Crowded. Loud."
The AFL-CIO called for its members to rally on Thursday in support of public sector workers, saying Senate Republicans and Walker had exercised "the nuclear option to ram through their bill attacking Wisconsin's working families in the dark of night."
More than 8,000 workers converged on the Indiana statehouse to protest legislation Democrats say targets public school teachers and others, including a provision that public employees would not have to pay unions dues.
Challenges to bargaining rights of teachers, firefighters and other state and local workers are also being weighed by legislatures in Ohio, Idaho, Tennessee, Kansas and several more states -- a number of which saw Republicans sweep to victory in November.
The states' confrontation with unions could be the biggest challenge to labor since then President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers nearly 30 years ago.
Republicans say the measures are needed to gain control of deficit-ridden budgets. Democrats and their union backers say Republicans are ramming through union-busting proposals.
STAKES ARE HIGH
The stakes are high for labor. More than a third of U.S. public employees such as teachers, police and civil service workers belong to unions while only 6.9 percent of private sector workers are unionized. Union membership has been on the decline for decades and fell last year to 11.9 percent of U.S. workers from 12.3 percent.
Action to weaken unions, who are traditionally a Democratic constituency and key source of the party's campaign funds, would threaten prospects for Democrats including President Barack Obama's re-election in November 2012.
Some protesters spent the night in the capitol in spite of a judge's ruling they must clear out -- as the state Senate stripped out the money elements of Walker's proposal. The move allowed a vote without missing Democrats, who had fled the state to deny Republicans in the chamber a quorum.
The Assembly's Republican Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald insisted there would be no postponement. "It's been three weeks ... We're going to vote on it in the light of day."
Walker has insisted the limits are needed to help the state's cash-poor municipalities deal with a projected $1.27 billion drop in aid over the next two years from the state, struggling to close its own $3.6 billion budget gap.
In a separate maneuver, Wisconsin officials hope to delay for a month a March 15 deadline to restructure some outstanding bonds that the governor says would save $165 million.
"We have shown we can have passionate debate. We are civil in the state of Wisconsin. We respect the law," Walker said, but he expressed concerns about outside influences coming into the state to create disturbances.
"The intensity of the protests are making it difficult to even get around into the Capitol," said Senate Democrat Jim Holperin, who was among 14 senate Democrats returning to his home state from Illinois.
Democratic House Minority Leader Peter Barca said the Republicans' actions the past few weeks had created "a stain so deep it may never be clean."
Democrats promised to fight on after the state assembly passes the truncated version of the bill. The state assembly has already passed the larger budget repair and union bill with only Republican votes.
They are also looking to the courts for relief. Barca filed a complaint that Republicans violated public meeting laws.
(Additional reporting by David Bailey, Karen Pierog, Mary Wisniewski, and John Rondy; Writing by Andrew Stern; Editing by Jackie Frank)