Opposing crowds surround Wisconsin's Capitol in union rights standoff
MADISON, Wis. — In opposing rallies that were peaceful and spirited, an estimated 60,000 demonstrators surrounded the Wisconsin Capitol on Saturday, the largest crowd yet in a weeklong clash that has become the center of a broader ideological battle over union rights and taxes.
State workers and pro-labor activists have filled the streets of downtown Madison to oppose Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to force many Wisconsin employees to contribute more for their health care and pensions and to strip them of most of their collective bargaining rights.
With activists flying in from around the country, those protests were countered Saturday by a smaller but equally strident crowd of supporters of Walker's state budget measure.
The Capitol rotunda echoed with drums and voices while pro-labor protesters outside chanted, "Kill the bill." ''Tea party"-led activists responded with chants of their own: "Do your job!"
What started out as a local political fight has spread to neighboring states hit hard by the recession, with newly elected Republican governors and legislators trying to control costs by muscling concessions from government workers unions.
Measures almost identical to the one in Wisconsin are advancing in Ohio and Iowa, while Michigan and Indiana are exploring other ways of limiting protections for unionized government workers.
"This is where we're going to start," said tea party organizer Melvin Timm of Neenah, Wis. "This is going to set the tone."
Some opposing activists could be seen locked in levelheaded conversations, while others engaged in spittle-flecked screaming matches before being encouraged by police to move along.
Wisconsin has been in legislative deadlock. On Thursday, its Democratic senators fled the state, blocking Republican attempts to push Walker's bill through. Walker and Republicans have said they refuse to modify the proposal.
The Democrats who left did not appear to have returned, and union supporters — some of whom have been sleeping overnight in the Capitol — said they would continue rallying Sunday.
Neither side seemed willing to bend.
"This is an existential battle," said conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart as he took the stage before the pro-Walker demonstrators. "It's the battle of our times."