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Wisconsin Republicans press on with curbs on union rights

By Jeff Mayers

MADISON, Wisc. (Reuters) - Amid increasingly vocal protests, Wisconsin's Republican-controlled Legislature was poised on Thursday to vote on a controversial proposal to strip most collective bargaining rights from public employees.

Many schools throughout the state closed Thursday -- the second consecutive day in the capitol of Madison -- after the state's largest teachers' union called for members to come to Madison and join thousands of others protesting around and inside the state Capitol.

"This is not about protecting our pay and benefits. It is about our right to collectively bargain," teacher's union President Mary Bell said.

The Wisconsin State Senate, controlled 19-14 by Republicans, was expected to vote first on the plan after the budget committee approved Republican Gov. Scott Walker's bill with some minor changes in a party line vote late Wednesday. Republican legislative leaders said they expected no more changes.

Senate Joint Finance Committee co-chair Alberta Darling, said the choice facing Wisconsin was either to get the concessions from unions, or lay off public employees.

"It's not like we're choosing to do this. We are broke," she said.

The battle over public employee unions is gaining national attention, with liberal talk shows highlighting the issue and saying that this is a national fight for union rights.

Ed Schultz, a nationally-known liberal radio talk show host who also has a show on MSNBC cable television, planned to air his show from Madison on Thursday.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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