By PATRICK CONDON and TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The largest crowd yet converged at the Wisconsin Capitol on Saturday to rally against a Republican-backed bill that would weaken public sector unions, with protesters - including a few famous faces - jamming the building and spilling into the streets.
The demonstration is in its 12th straight day, with hundreds of protesters sleeping overnight in the Capitol. Union supporters also held rallies across the country in a show of solidarity, but Madison remained ground zero.
Madison Police spokesman Joel DeSpain said he didn't have a firm estimate, but said the crowd was larger than last Saturday when nearly 70,000 people descended on the Capitol. Hundreds of people banged on drums and screamed into bullhorns in the Capitol rotunda, while the others braved the sub-freezing temperatures and a heavy snowfall for a rally outside.
The crowd cheered as pilot Jeff Skiles, the first officer on the US Airways Flight that landed in New York City's Hudson River in January 2009, told them that "justice and righteousness will always win out." Skiles helped pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger land the plane, whose 155 passengers and crew members were safely rescued.
Wisconsin actor Bradley Whitford, who has had starring roles in television's "The West Wing" and the Adam Sandler movie "Billy Madison," told the crowd that he was taking the governor's efforts personally.
"I want to thank you for coming out here today to exercise those pesky First Amendment rights," said Whitfield, a graduate of Madison East High School. "This governor has to understand Wisconsin is a stubborn constituency. We fish through ice!"
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has introduced a bill that would require public sector workers to give more to their pensions and health care. Other provisions in the measure would strip almost all public workers, from librarians to snow plow drivers, of their right to collectively bargain on their benefits and work conditions.
Walker has said the proposal will help balance the state's current $137 million shortfall and help close a projected $3.6 billion deficit in the upcoming 2011-13 two-year budget. He also says freeing local governments from collective bargaining will give them the flexibility they need to deal with deep cuts coming in his budget.
The bill has sent Democrats and unions into an outrage. They see it as trampling on workers' rights and as an attempt to destroy Democrats' strongest campaign allies.
Saturday's crowd jammed the Capitol steps, packed the ice-covered lawn - some sat in trees - and filled surrounding streets. Several thousand counter-protesters came out last Saturday to support Walker, but they were hardly visible this time.
Capitol police planned to let protesters stay overnight Saturday into Sunday, but plan to finally close the building Sunday afternoon to let crews clean it.
People held signs that called Walker a parasite and a dictator and demanded voters recall him. Michael Janairo, a 4-year-old of Sheboygan, held a sign that showed Green Bay Packers star linebacker Clay Matthews tackling Walker. Michael's mother, Lisa Janairo, is not a public worker but drove to Madison to show support.
"For him to dictate and not negotiate is just wrong and we won't stand for it," the 45-year-old said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)