By PATRICK CONDON and TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Rallies were held across the country Saturday to support thousands of protesters holding steady at the Wisconsin Capitol in their fight against Republican-backed legislation aimed at weakening unions.
Union supporters organized rallies from St. Paul to New York to Los Angeles in a show of solidarity as the protest in Madison entered its 12th straight day and attracted its largest crowd yet: more than 70,000 people.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has introduced a bill that includes stripping almost all public workers, from librarians to snow plow drivers, of their right to collectively bargain on benefits and work conditions.
Walker has said the bill would help close a projected $3.6 billion deficit in the 2011-13 budget. He also argues that freeing local governments from collective bargaining would give them flexibility amid deep budget cuts.
The bill has sent Democrats and unions into an outrage nationwide. They see it as trampling on workers' rights and as an attempt to destroy Democrats' strongest campaign allies.
"Wisconsin is opening up people's eyes a little bit," said Jay Van Loenen, a teacher who attended a rally in Denver that attracted about 1,000 people. "So I think that the move is to try to get people more involved in their unions and create a stronger front so that if something happens here, we are prepared."
Several thousand people gathered for a rally in Columbus, Ohio, where lawmakers are considering a similar bill. Indiana Democrats successfully blocked a Republican bill last week that would have prohibited union membership from being a condition of employment.
Large crowds of teachers, firefighters and public workers also gathered for rallies - holding American flags, wearing pro-union clothing and holding signs - in other capital cities including Topeka, Kan.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Olympia, Wash.
In Los Angeles, public sector workers and others held signs that read "We are all Wisconsin." Some wore foam "cheeseheads," the familiar hats worn by Green Bay Packers fans.
Covered in layers of coats, scarves, hats and gloves, about 1,000 rally goers outside the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul chanted "Workers' rights are human rights" and waved signs, some reading "United we bargain, divided we beg."
"The right to collectively bargain is an American right," Eliot Seide, a local union leader, told the crowd in St. Paul. "You can't have American democracy if you don't have a strong trade union movement."
In Los Angeles, protesters held signs that read “We are all Wisconsin.” Some wore foam cheesehead hats, popular with by Green Bay Packers fans.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, gave a spirited speech encouraging people to endure through the struggle. Thousands of protestors have held steady at the Wisconsin Capitol for about two weeks, though their governor contends the legislation is necessary to deal with the state's budget deficit.
Wearing cheesehead hats and waving signs, Pam Winkler and her two children made it a family outing. Winkler has been a teacher in White Bear Lake for 22 years, and her sister is an elementary school teacher in Wisconsin.
Winkler said she came to the rally simply because people must have the right to collectively bargain.
"It's not about money, it's about having a say at the table and discussing," Winkler said. "We need to have those rights."
Winkler, whose sister is protesting at the Wisconsin Capitol, said news of the proposed budget has been hard on her family. Her parents are both retired and could face massive cuts to their savings.
"We can't just have people walking all over us," she said.
State Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, told rally goers that the "corporate elite" won't succeed in its mission to steal people's health care, education and retirement because the public will fight back.
"When they do that, everyone is going to see them for who they are," Dibble said. "Extremists bought and paid for by the business partnership by the chamber of commerce."
The rallies were part of a campaign by the liberal online group MoveOn.org to hold demonstrations supporting Wisconsin workers in major cities across the country. Some of the demonstrations attracted counter-protests, though the pro-union rallies were larger.
Associated Press writers Tara Bannow in St. Paul, Minn.; Sheila V. Kumar in Denver; Beth Fouhy in New York City; Michael Virtanen in Albany, N.Y.; and Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)