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Wis. protests persist; compromise floated

MADISON, Wis., Feb. 21 (UPI) -- No end was in sight Monday as demonstrators protested at the Wisconsin state Capitol against plans limiting collective-bargaining rights for public employees.

Carol Labash, a former Detroit city construction inspector who has been camping out for four days, told WTMJ, Milwaukee: "I use my briefcase as a pillow. I came from Detroit, because in Michigan, we're facing the same things."

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A statewide furlough day and the Presidents Day holiday brought more protesters to the Statehouse in the second week of protests that saw Democratic lawmakers flee the state to prevent a vote on the issue.

"We'll be here Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday -- as long as it takes," union organizer Gary Lonzo told The New York Times at Sunday's rally. "We're not going anywhere."

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Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell told reporters she believed it was "time for educators to be back in the classroom with their students" and to protest against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's proposed rollback of union protections "after their workday is done."

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Nearly a dozen school districts, including Madison's, that would have been open Monday were closed, most for a fourth day, a United Press International count indicated.

Dozens of "solidarity events" were planned Monday in other U.S. cities, including rallies in Las Vegas, Raleigh, N.C., Helena, Mont., and Carson City, Nev.

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Walker maintained a hard line on his proposal, telling "Fox News Sunday" he would hold firm for "as long as it takes because in the end we're doing the right thing for Wisconsin."

Democratic state senators, who left the state to prevent a vote, vowed to stay away until Walker was willing to negotiate.

Amid the standoff, moderate GOP state Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center floated a compromise bill that would end most public employee unions' collective-bargaining rights for now, but reinstate them in 2013.

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The rights would be restored, with higher employee contributions for pensions and health insurance as the new starting point for future union contract negotiations, he told the Wisconsin State Journal, Wisconsin's second-largest newspaper, which endorsed his proposal Sunday under the headline, "Fix budget, then bring bargaining back."

But several senators told The Wall Street Journal the compromise would be unacceptable to Democrats, in part because Republicans would likely still be in control of both the Senate and Assembly, and simply would extend the provisions.

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But a bigger reason, they said, is because the unions already agreed to Walker's fiscal concessions to close a projected $3.6 billion shortfall.

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Bell said Sunday her group and other public employee unions already agreed to pay 5.8 percent of their salaries toward pensions, up from less than 1 percent now, and 12.6 percent of their healthcare premiums, up from about 6 percent.

Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach of Middleton, who was hiding out at a Chicago hotel, said, "Collective bargaining isn't a fiscal issue," so Walker must reinstate it.

He asked the Journal, "If it's OK to collectively bargain in 2013, why isn't it OK today?"

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State Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he would call the Senate back into session Tuesday, hoping there would be enough senators present to vote on Walker's bill.

The state Assembly, also dominated by Republicans, was expected to take up the matter Tuesday too, but Democrats there planned to introduce a long list of amendments to the bill that they said could take days to discuss.

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