UPDATED 03/11/11 12:02 p.m.

MADISON, Wis. (CBS) — Union leaders say they are mounting a major counter-attack against Republicans nationwide, after Wisconsin lawmakers succeeded in stripping nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state’s public employees.

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says he will sign off on the plan as soon as possible.

The state’s Assembly passed Walker’s proposal Thursday afternoon by a vote of 53-42, dealing one of the heaviest blows to the power of organized labor in years.

The state Senate approved the measure Wednesday night after using a procedural maneuver to bypass Democrats who had fled the state to block a vote. A quorum is required to pass any measure involving spending money, so the Republicans omitted most of the budget language in the bill.

The measure forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for raises beyond the rate of inflation unless approved by referendum. It does not apply to police and firefighters.

On Thursday, police carried out the last few diehard protesters from the Wisconsin state capitol, just a few hours after the vote. Meanwhile, public employees are upset.

“It’s going to affect my income,” said University of Wisconsin employee Joyce Jardeau. “I’m considered non-essential personnel, so will I even have a job?”

Earlier the standoff turned into a shoving match, as demonstrators blocked the entrances to the Capitol and hallways inside. Some had to be dragged away as they tried to disrupt the final vote by the Republican-led assembly.

After the measure passed, Democratic state Assemblyman Brett Hulsey (D-Madison) tried to console the crowd.

“And now we go to the courts,” Hulsey said with bullhorn in hand.

He says it’s now up to the courts to challenge the legality of the bill.

“Every day we’ve been able to keep it out in the sun, shine more sun on it, it’s stunk more,” Hulsey said. “It’s a bad deal for Wisconsin families and our future.”

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Meanwhile, the self-exiled Democratic senators have returned from Illinois after three weeks.

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Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) returned home on Friday, still arguing strongly against the bill that passed.

“This isn’t about balancing the budget,” Erpenbach said. ”This is about taking workers’ rights away, because you still don’t have a balanced budget.”

But Walker says it’s too late.

“The fact of the matter is we live in a democracy, and to participate in a democracy, you’ve got to be in the arena,” Walker said.

Walker has insisted from the beginning that his budget plan – including stripping collective bargaining rights – is all about fiscal reform.

He said the measure would save Wisconsin $30 million in 2011 and avoid 1,500 layoffs he had threatened to make if Democrats had successfully blocked a vote on his plan.

“It also gives the tools not only to improve government for the people of this state – particularly middle class taxpayers of the state – but it ultimately allows us the tools at both the state and local level to balance our budgets and to balance our budgets not just now, but into the future,” Walker said.

Opponents said Walker was simply aiming for a future with weakened unions.

Former White House senior adviser David Axelrod said Walker’s plan was clearly a union-busting effort disguised as a budget-cutting measure.

“It is absolutely legitimate for state governments to ask for sacrifice broadly from their own workers in order to deal with very significant budget challenges,” Axelrod said. “But that should not be used as a kind of Trojan Horse through which you roll in a kind of ideological agenda to destroy unions. And that’s what we’ve seen in Wisconsin.

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Labor leaders say what has happened in Wisconsin has mobilized middle-class Americans, and they plan to mount a counter-attack against Republicans in 2012.