Reporting from Madison, Wis. — Nearly two weeks into a political standoff, tens of thousands rallied in Madison and in dozens of cities around the nation to oppose a bill that would severely limit collective bargaining rights for most Wisconsin public employees.
Joel DeSpain, spokesman for the Madison Police Department, said the rally — in steadily falling snow — drew between 70,000 and 100,000 and may have been the largest protest in Madison since the Vietnam War.
"I've been around Madison for 50 years, and I have not seen anything like it so far," he said.
A Republican-backed bill containing the anti-union provisions prompted 14 Democratic state senators to flee Wisconsin, denying the Republican majority a quorum to pass it. The Republican-dominated state Assembly passed a version of the bill early Friday, but the Senate remains stymied until Democrats return.
Despite exhortations by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin Democrats were still hiding in Illinois as supporters rallied across the nation. The liberal group MoveOn.org said it organized rallies in 66 cities, including every state capital.
"From what we can tell, it was kind of an amazing wave of energy around the country," said MoveOn.org Executive Director Justin Ruben.
Tea Party groups organized counter protests in some cities, including Jefferson City, Mo., and Raleigh, N.C. In Madison, however, only a handful of scattered counter-protesters showed up.
Pete Litzau, 57, a registered nurse from Milwaukee, who came to Madison counter-protest on his own, carried a sign reading, "I Support Scott Walker." He said taxpayers are "sick and tired" of lavish pensions paid to public employees.
As for the pro-union protesters marching around the Capitol, Litzau said, "This is what democracy is all about. I think it's very, very cool — I just wish the 14 Democratic senators that are in Illinois would … come back and join the process."
Some protesters have been camping in the Capitol for nearly two weeks, but Saturday was the first visit for Freeman Monfort, 79. The retired union sheet metal worker came from the village of Pound, in the far northeast corner of the state, along with his daughter and grandson, both union teachers in Green Bay.
The family said they came to protest because union benefits had allowed them a decent, although modest, standard of living over the years.
"It allowed us to have a pension and a living wage and to have dignity, which I would not have been able to do if it had not been for the union," Monfort said.
Elsewhere, hundreds of boisterous pro-union demonstrators gathered on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, loudly voicing their support for the Wisconsin workers while speaking of concerns that the perennially forceful labor movement in California could one day face a similar crisis.
"If it can happen in Wisconsin, it can happen anywhere," said Pasquale Gazillo, a merchant marine, referring to Wisconsin's long history as a union stronghold.
"States like that, they're the ones that started the eight-hour workday and made sure workers got paid if they got sick. The Republicans are pushing, and if that state falls, the rest of the country is going to be in trouble," he said.
In New York City, a crowd estimated by police at almost 3,000, mostly union members, gathered near City Hall in Lower Manhattan to show support for government workers in Wisconsin. Several people in the crowd showed their solidarity by wearing hats shaped like giant wedges of cheese.
In Illinois, police estimated a crowd of 850 to 900 gathered in Chicago. U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) addressed the crowd, saying, "What's at stake in Wisconsin is the basic concept of liberty and freedom." He also said Walker has begun "a national crusade" against unions.
Walker's office did not respond to a request for comment.
DeSpain, the Madison police spokesman, said he was unaware of any arrests Saturday, adding that Madison police have made no arrests during any of the protests over the bill.
Relations between police and protesters have remained cordial during the protests, even as students, union members and others have set up a miniature city in the Capitol. The protesters have slept on the floor, set up food and medic stations, and plastered the marble walls with signs reading "Kill the Bill" and "Governor Walker, the whole world is watching."
Although most public safety workers are exempted under the bill, police have been largely sympathetic to the protesters' cause. The Wisconsin Professional Police Assn. called on its members to sleep in the Capitol alongside protesters, and some carried signs with the slogan "Cops for Labor."
Capitol officials have announced they will clear the overnight campers Sunday. Some protesters were planning civil disobedience training Saturday evening.
Meanwhile, 37 Democratic House members from Indiana also remained locked down in a hotel in Urbana, Ill., Saturday. Following Wisconsin's lead, the Democrats fled to stop votes on a slate of Republican-backed labor and education bills, including a controversial "right to work" bill that now appears to be dead.
Times staff writers Kurt Streeter in Los Angeles and Geraldine Baum in New York, and Mick Swasko of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.