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Democrats leave Wisconsin to protest union curbs

By Jeff Mayers

MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate left the state on Thursday in a boycott of a vote to curb the union rights of public employees, attempting to force majority Republicans to negotiate a compromise.

Democratic Senator Jon Erpenbach told WisPolitics, an online news service, he believed all 14 Senate Democrats were out of the state by Thursday afternoon. There are 19 Senate Republicans, and a quorum of 20 is needed to vote on the issue.

Erpenbach would not disclose where he was or how many of the Democratic senators were with him.

"We were left with no choice," Erpenbach said. "The question is when are the Republicans going to sit down seriously with the other side on this issue and try to work something out," Erpenbach told WisPolitics.

Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed sharply curbing the bargaining rights of public unions in order to make immediate budget savings. The move sparked outrage among union workers who have protested at the Wisconsin State House.

Capitol police estimated 25,000 people, many carrying signs protesting the Republican plan, converged on the state Capitol building on Thursday, including 5,000 packed inside the building. The protests, which began on Monday, have grown in numbers every day this week, police said.

The proposal was to be debated and possibly come to a vote in the state Senate on Thursday. Republicans also hold a majority in the state House of Representatives.

Walker called Democratic legislators' actions "disrespectful."

"Out of respect for the institution of the Legislature and the democratic process, I am calling on Senate Democrats to show up to work today, debate legislation and cast their vote," Walker said.

Many schools throughout the state closed on Thursday after the state's largest teachers' union called for members to join protests around and inside the state Capitol.

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

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.

(Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Reporting by Jeff Mayers and Karen Pierog; Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Cooney)