Largest protest yet against Wis. anti-union law

Protesters march outside the state Capitol Saturday, March 12, 2011, in Madison, Wis. While Gov. Scott Walker has already signed a contentious collective bargaining bill into law, demonstrators insist the fight is not over. For some, the focus has shifted from trying to stop passage of the bill to generating momentum for recall efforts against Republicans. Others are simply venting their frustration over the law taking away most of public workers' collective bargaining rights. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Morry Gash

Last Updated 5:19 p.m. ET

MADISON, Wis. - The largest protests yet since demonstrations began against Wis. Governor Scott Walker's controversial bid to eliminate most public workers' right of collective bargaining were held at the State Capitol, one day after the Republican governor signed the bill into law.

Madison Police estimated the crowd at 85,000 today, reports CBS Affiliate WISC.

The Wisconsin Department of Administration released a lower figure - 68,000 - but the rally still figures as the largest seen yet in opposition to the Republican-sponsored anti-union provision.

While Gov. Walker has already signed the contentious bill into law, demonstrators insist the fight is not over.

Throngs of protesters gathered Saturday outside a convention center where 13 of the 14 Democratic State Senators who fled the state in order to block or stall action on the bill made their first public appearance in the capital since ending their self-imposed exile. The crowds yelled, "Fab 14, our heroes!"

Before marching around the Capitol with demonstrators, Senator Spencer Coggs of Milwaukee said Walker had forced Republicans into "walking the plank" by passing the law.

For some, the focus of protests has shifted from trying to stop passage of the bill to generating momentum for recall efforts against Republicans. In response, GOP supporters have initiated recall efforts against Democratic Senators.

Others are simply venting their frustration over the law taking away most of public workers' collective bargaining rights - a bill that was pushed through by the Republican-led legislature after Gov. Walker said its anti-union provisions were non-negotiable.

Dozens of farmers who paraded through the streets on tractors were among those supporting union workers Saturday. They drew cheers as they pumped their fists in the air and displayed signs such as "Planting the seeds for a big season of recalls."

Tod Pulvermacher of Bear Valley towed a manure spreader carrying a sign that read, "Walker's bill belongs here."

"Farmers are working-class Americans," the 33-year-old said as the crowd around him started to cheer. "We work for a living as hard as anybody, and this is about all of us."

Tony Schultz, 31, said the collective bargaining measure wasn't the only part of Walker's overall budget plan he finds hard to swallow. He said the governor's proposal to slash more than $900 million from school budgets will be especially painful for residents like him who live in rural areas with already limited education resources.

"I don't want my son to go to school and have 35 people in his kindergarten class," said Schultz, of Athens. "I don't want my son's music programs cut. I don't want his art programs cut."

Judy Gump, 45, who teaches English as a Madison high school, said the collective bargaining measure may be law, but protesters still want to be heard.

"This is so not the end," she said. "This is what makes people more determined and makes them dig in."

She said if the first person who got arrested during the civil rights movement had given up, the movement would have failed.

Today's demonstration is part of a statewide action called for by the We Are Wisconsin coalition.

Labor leaders promise to use the setback to fire up members and mount a major counterattack against Republicans at the ballot box in 2012.

Walker has said ending the collective bargaining rights for public employees was necessary to prevent layoffs.

In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, Walker called his measure "progressive," and said he had no doubt public support for the measure would grow as people experience "more efficient" government."

"It's reform that leads the country," Walker told the AP, "and we're showing there's a better way by sharing in that sacrifice with all of us in government."

Opponents to the law received a setback Friday, when a judge denied an emergency request to block the law that strips nearly all collective bargaining rights from Wisconsin's public workers, but the legal

fight over the contentious measure is just beginning.

Democratic Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk filed a lawsuit minutes after Walker signed the bill Friday morning, alleging legislators passed the bill illegally and asked for an emergency order barring Secretary of State Doug La Follette from publishing the law.

Judge Amy Smith ruled Falk's attorneys failed to show how blocking publication would cause serious harm - a key element to granting an emergency injunction - and refused to issue the order.

She scheduled a Wednesday hearing to consider granting the order on a non-emergency basis.

The law can't take effect until La Follette sends official notice to the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison to publish the language. State law grants La Follette up to 10 business days to publish laws, which means the collective bargaining measure must be published by March 25.

La Follette - a Democrat who opposes the law - said Walker asked him to publish the law Monday, but he said he wants to talk to the governor before doing so, adding he typically waits the full 10 days before publishing any law.

"It doesn't strike me as prudent to do anything when there's a possible court action," La Follette said. "It's been rushed enough already."

Falk's lawsuit argues fiscal items remained in the bill, pointing out that Walker and Republican lawmakers repeatedly have said the entire bill had a financial impact.

The lawsuit also alleges the special committee met in violation of Wisconsin's open meetings law because it convened on less than two hours' notice. State law generally requires 24 hours' notice except in emergencies. Senate Clerk Rob Marchant has said the meeting was legally called under rules of the Senate that have no time requirement.

Walker said during a Friday interview with The Associated Press that he's confident the measure will withstand legal challenges.

"They followed the law," he said of legislators.

Dane County attorney Marcia MacKenzie argued Friday for an emergency order blocking the law's publication on the basis that it would impose irreparable harm on county employees. She said the

county would have to re-calibrate its payroll system, which could result in missed paychecks, and that a provision in the law granting Walker's administration unilateral control of Medicaid could affect the county's human services department.

MacKenzie said she couldn't offer any details because she hadn't had time to gather them.

"Let us all catch our breath," she said.

Assistant Attorney General Steven Means countered on behalf of the state that delaying publication of the law could cost taxpayers millions of dollars, although he offered nothing to back up the assertion. He added that state laws are presumed constitutional.

"What they're asking you to do is extraordinary," Means told the judge.

While Smith denied the emergency request, she said she would listen to more fully developed arguments Wednesday.