MADISON, Wis. – Nearly two weeks into a political standoff, thousands rallied in Madison and 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 the state, 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 Gov. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin Democrats were still hiding in Illinois as supporters rallied in Madison and around 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 counterprotests in some cities. In Madison, however, only a handful of scattered counter-protesters were in evidence.
Pete Litzau, 57, a registered nurse from Milwaukee, who came to Madison to 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.
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 voicing concerns that the perennially forceful labor movement in California could one day face a similar crisis.
In New York City, a crowd estimated by police at almost 3,000 gathered near City Hall 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 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.