Public employees, labor supporters and activists continue demonstrations in Wisconsin's state capital for a fourth day Friday, protesting Republican Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to strip most public employees of most collective bargaining rights.
The cuts could impact nearly 300,000 public workers, many of them teachers, whose massive protests forced school closures around the state.
Fourteen Democratic senators even fled the state to postpone a vote they are likely to lose.
"We decided to slow the process down, and the only way to do that was for us to leave the state," said Jon Erpenbach. "Republicans can't move forward with this legislation unless we're there."
Simply put, the plan requires most public employees to contribute more to their pensions and health care plans, while losing their right to collective bargaining, reports CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers.
Walker said he was hired to fill a $3.6 billion budget hole, and that his plan is saving 5,500 state workers' jobs.
It is an emotional issue in the state that gave birth to public worker unions 75 years ago.
"To take and throw away the contract and say 'It's balancing the budget' is bull crap," said Marty Winchester.
Yet five unions are specifically untouched by the bill, including four - the Wisconsin State Troopers, the Milwaukee Police and Firefighters Associations, and the West Allis Professional Police - that endorsed Walker in the recent election, reports WISC.
Walker denied that the unions are getting political payback.
"I think that's utterly ridiculous," Walker told WISC. "The statewide police union, the statewide firefighter union endorsed my opponent. If [it] was rewarding political allies, it would be ridiculous to exempt them if that was the reason."
On "The Early Show" Walker told anchor Chris Wragge that there were 310 police and fire unions across the state that did not endorse him, but said the exemption for police and police employees was a security issue.
"For us it's simple: We cannot compromise public safety in this state," Walker said. "We've seen what's happened unfortunately with a number of our schools. It is illegal to strike in this state. We can't compromise our public safety.
"But the bottom line is we've got to balance the budget, the people are here, the thousands of protesters, union protesters - at least those from Wisconsin; there are plenty of others coming in from across the country - but those from Wisconsin have a right to be heard. But the millions and millions of taxpayers of the state have a right to be heard as well.
"We can't raise taxes to balance the budget or we'll cripple the economy that already has about a 7.5 percent unemployment rate," Walker said. "To show that we're open for business, we've got to make it easier to put people to work here, and asking employees to pay half the national average for health care is truly a modest request."
On "The Early Show" Walker said his position has not softened. He characterized his proposal as "a bold political move," but added that it was a modest request of public sector employees.
Despite the turnout of protesters, which has forced the closure of schools, Walker said the "vast majority" of the state's 300,000 state and local government employees have reported for work, "just like we pay them to do."
"The state senators who are hiding out down in Illinois should show up for work, have their say, have their vote, add their amendments, but in the end we've got a $3.6 billion budget deficit we've got to balance," Walker said. "And I think for most people in the middle class outside of government, they understand what we're asking for is still a lot less than what most of our average taxpayers are paying."
Walker also denied that his proposal is trying to break the unions.
"No, Wisconsin has the strongest civil service protection system in the country," he said. "It was there several generations before any collective bargaining was ever approved in this state. Our workers have protections today, they'll have protections after this bill passes. What you've got are union leaders who don't like the fact that they're not going to be able to mandatorily enforce that every one of the workers here in state and local government have got to be a part of the union. That's why they're here. That's why the national money is here. That's why the national union leaders are coming here."
Walker suggested that the money members pay to their union would be better spent paying into the government's health insurance.
"In the end it's a better deal for those workers at the state and local level to get their dues back, to be able to have the option of joining or not joining, and take that $500, $600 and apply it to the health care and pension costs we have."
"I toured manufacturing plants all across the state this week. Most of those workers - middle class, working class blue collar workers - are paying 25 percent to 50 percent of their health care premiums. We're just asking for 12.6 percent. Again, I think it is a modest request. It's a bold political move, but it's a modest request. And I think the majority of taxpayers in the state understand, even those who work in union shops outside of government."