In Wisconsin, thousands protest budget proposal

Protesters to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers demonstrate in at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011.
AP Photo/Andy Manis

For the past several days we've been seeing pictures of thousands of demonstrators, marching through the streets of one capital city. Not in Middle East, but in our own Middle West. Cynthia Bowers in Madison, Wisconsin has filed this Sunday Journal:

For six days now, all eyes have been on Madison, Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of impassioned protesters having been marching on the state capital - and the battle over one state's budget bill has become a fiery national referendum on public employee unions.

It all began when newly-elected Republican governor Scott Walker declared he would cut costs by cutting pension and health care benefits - and curtailing collective bargaining rights for the state's 300,000 public employees.

As the majority Republican legislature prepared to vote on the controversial proposal, demonstrators began gathering - slowly at first, then by the thousands.

By Thursday, word came that Wisconsin's 14 Democratic senators had fled the state in a last-ditch effort to postpone a vote they were bound to lose.

School teacher David Fry told us what he feels is at stake.

"A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into getting to where we're at now," Fry told CBS. "And we don't want to let that go."

Wisconsin's Governor says he has no choice. His state is facing a $136 million budget deficit, and something must be done.

Protestors say the governor is using the budget battle to break the back of the unions in the state that was the first to give public workers collective bargaining rights 50 years ago.

Longtime Green Bay second grade teacher Mary Beth Wendt worries for her future.

"I am a seasoned teacher," she said. "And I feel like without our union I am out of a job."

It's a fear being felt by public employee unions across the country. Forty-five states and the district of Columbia are projecting budget shortfalls this year. At least nine Republican governors have proposed plans of their own to balance those budgets by curtailing the power of the unions. One of the most vocal is Ohio Governor John Kasich.

"If they want to strike they should be fired," Kasich said.

A recent poll shows national support for public employee unions is declining. And private sector unions fear they could be next on the firing line.

"This is a taxpayer issue, right?" Bowers asked Tim Hanson, of the Electrical Worker's Union.

"No, it's a workers' rights issue," he said.

And Wisconsin's fire and police unions joined the fray, even though they would not be affected by the bill.

Yesterday, conservative activists showed up, fearing their cut at all costs message - the message that elected Governor Scott Walker - was getting lost in the raucous rhetoric. Steve Boss came from the small town of Oostburg.

"I know the majority is ready for these cuts," he said. "They're ready for things to change. Sacrifice."

Lynn Porochaska doesn't believe the unions are necessary.

"I don't have anyone behind me like a union," she said. "I don't need it. It's my performance that speaks."

As the protest goes into its second week, this is what democracy looks like in Madison, Wisconsin; one noisy day blends into the next and the crowds continue to grow. Both sides acknowledge that the stakes are high and that, as Wisconsin goes so, perhaps, so goes the nation.