By Brendan O'Brien
MADISON, Wis. (Reuters) - Wisconsin state senators on Wednesday were debating a proposal to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state in a tense session marked by periodic shouts from the Senate gallery from demonstrators opposed to the measure.
The Republican-led state Senate is expected to approve the bill, which would prohibit requiring private sector workers to join or financially support unions, and send it to the state Assembly where Republicans also hold a majority.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a possible Republican presidential hopeful, will sign a bill if it gets to his desk, his spokeswoman has said.
Walker drew accolades from conservatives across the nation in 2011 when he ushered through legislation limiting the powers of most public sector unions in Wisconsin amid large protests at the Capitol.
Supporters of the right-to-work measure contend it could attract businesses to the Midwestern state, while opponents see it as an assault on organized labor that would limit union revenue.
"We have the duty to taxpayers to explore any opportunity to make Wisconsin more competitive," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said as the Senate meeting began.
Demonstrators interrupted Fitzgerald's opening twice, shouting their opposition to the bill before being escorted from the Senate gallery by Capitol police, and several others followed over the course of the session.
"This is a sham ... this is an attack on democracy," one protester shouted.
Outside the chambers, Patrick Kelly, 54, was among about 30 workers who belted out an occasional chant, while waiting to hear reports about the debate.
"We are proud workers and proud Americans," Kelly said. "If they pass right-to-work, we will do what it takes to survive and thrive in it."
About 3,000 demonstrators opposed to the measure gathered at midday around the Capitol Building in an echo of rallies in 2011, the second noontime rally in as many days.
"This is about dignity and the working class," said Freeman Monfort, 83, a union member for 60 years.
Republican leaders have fast-tracked the bill, introducing it on Monday and holding a more than eight-hour Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, which the chairman cut short by 30 minutes, citing the threat of disruption by bill opponents.
The committee voted along party lines to advance the bill to the Senate, drawing criticism from Democrats.
"The idea that right to work will help build Wisconsin's economy is fantasy," Democratic Senator Julie Lassa said. "It is not based on reality."
Fitzgerald said last week he had enough Senate support to approve the bill, which would be taken up by the Assembly next week.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Scott Malone, Lisa Lambert, Andre Grenon and Eric Beech)