“Something needs to be done,” he said, “and quickly.”
Across Wisconsin, residents like Mr. Hahan have fumed in recent years as tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs have vanished, and as some of the state’s best-known corporations have pressured workers to accept benefit cuts.
Wisconsin’s financial problems are not as dire as those of many other states. But a simmering resentment over those lost jobs and lost benefits in private industry — combined with the state’s history of highly polarized politics — may explain why Wisconsin, once a pioneer in supporting organized labor, has set off a debate that is spreading to other states over public workers, unions and budget woes.
There are deeply divided opinions and shifting allegiances over whether unions are helping or hurting people who have been caught in the recent economic squeeze. And workers themselves, being pitted against one another, are finding it hard to feel sympathy or offer solidarity, with their own jobs lost and their benefits and pensions cut back or cut off.
“Everyone else needs to pinch pennies and give more money to health insurance companies and pay for their own retirement,” said Cindy Kuehn as she left Jim and Judy’s Food Market in Palmyra. “It’s about time the buck stops.”
In Madison, the capital, which has become the focus of protests, many state workers and students at the University of Wisconsin predictably oppose the proposed cuts.
But away from Madison, many people said that public workers needed to share in the sacrifice that their own families have been forced to make.
The effort to weaken bargaining rights for public-sector unions has been particularly divisive, with some people questioning the need to tackle such a fundamental issue to solve the state’s budget problems.
But more often the conversation has turned to the proposals to increase public workers’ contributions to their pensions and health care, and on these issues people said they were less sympathetic, and often grew flushed and emotional telling stories of their own pay cuts and financial worries.
Here in Janesville, a city of about 60,000 an hour southeast of Madison, Crystal Watkins, a preschool teacher at a Lutheran church, said she was paid less than public school teachers and got fewer benefits. “I don’t have any of that,” she said. “But I’m there every day because I love the kids.”
In Palmyra, a small village bounded by farmland and forests, MaryKay Horter remembered how her husband’s Chevy dealership had teetered on the brink of closing after General Motors declared bankruptcy, for which she blamed unions.
Ms. Horter said she was forced to work more hours as an occupational therapist, but had not seen a raise or any retirement contributions from her employer for the last two years. All told, her family’s income has dropped by about a third.
“I don’t get to bargain in my job, either,” she said.
And in nearby Whitewater, a scenic working-class city of 15,000 that is home to a public university, Dave Bergman, the owner of a bar, was tending it himself on Sunday. He has been forced to cut staff and work seven days a week.
“There are a lot of people out of work right now that would take a job without a union,” Mr. Bergman said.
By some measures, Wisconsin, a state of 5.6 million people, has not suffered as much as other Midwestern states in the recession, according to Abdur Chowdhury, an economist at Marquette University.