MADISON, Wis. — Tens of thousands of protesters marched around Wisconsin's Capitol on Saturday while hundreds more gathered in the building's rotunda as part of a planned daylong demonstration against a new Republican-sponsored law that drastically weakens the state's public employee unions.
Opponents of the legislation that strips most public employees of nearly all their collective bargaining rights say the fight is not over, even though Gov. Scott Walker signed it into law on Friday.
"I'm here because I think it's important that not only the governor but other people need to understand that this is not simply a union issue," said Bridget Stafford, 43, a teacher and union member from Stevens Point, Wis., who was watching other protesters from a balcony in the Capitol. "It's about people's rights."
The cold, breezy day started quietly, with a few dozen people gathered in clusters outside the Capitol. By late morning, tens of thousands of protesters were marching around the Capitol, cheering as dozens of farmers driving tractors joined in the procession. Chants of "This is what democracy looked like!" echoed off the buildings surrounding the Capitol's square.
The crowds marching around the building took up the entire width of the streets. Sidewalks were clogged with people. Hundreds of people filled the broad staircases leading to the Capitol's entrances.
Mark Oles, an information technology worker from Madison, said Saturday's protests were meant to show that opponents of the law aren't going to back down. "It's the only way that I know how to participate in my state government at this point," said Oles, warming up in a packed coffee shop across from the Capitol. "I don't feel like I have any voice except for the one I bring out here."
While the protesters marched, legislators from both parties made it clear that they are prepared for political war.
"It is going to be a battle for the future of the state of Wisconsin," said state Sen. Mark Miller, the Senate's minority leader and one of 14 Democratic senators who fled the state last month for Illinois in an effort to block passage of the bill. The Republican-controlled Legislature last week passed the modified bill after finding a parliamentary way to get around the boycott.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald blasted the Democratic senators, issuing a statement in which he called them "the most shameful 14 people in the state of Wisconsin."
The fight over the legislation has resulted in a month of protests by unionists and their Democratic allies. Democrats have said they will fight the law in the courts and have begun circulating recall petitions.