By James B. Kelleher
MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people had already gathered at the Wisconsin state Capitol on Saturday morning to protest on the first weekend since Governor Scott Walker signed into law a proposal that has sparked a major national confrontation with organized labor.
Madison Police predicted the 27th consecutive day of demonstrations against the law to severely restrict the power of public sector unions in the state would approach the 70,000 to 100,000 a week ago, the largest demonstration at the state Capitol since the Vietnam War.
Several of the Democratic state Senators who left Wisconsin for three weeks to block the measure's path to approval, are expected to attend the afternoon rally. While they ultimately failed to stop Republicans from passing the law, they are viewed as heroes by union members and their supporters fighting the plan.
"Saturday's going to be huge," said Terese Berceau, a Democratic member of the state Assembly who represents Madison, a university town that has seen its share of protests over the years. "Absolutely huge."
Despite the raw and windy weather, the mood was upbeat Saturday morning. A parade of about 50 tractors driven by Wisconsin farmers, some carrying fellow demonstrators, slowly made its way around the Capitol building. The crowd was chanting "Compost the bill" and "Recall Walker."
Protests against the law, which passed both chambers of Wisconsin's Republican-controlled legislature and was signed into law on Friday by Walker, were planned across the state on Saturday.
In a major setback for organized labor, the state Assembly on Thursday voted 53-42 to approve the controversial bill. The state Senate had earlier approved the measure despite the boycott of Democratic senators.
While Walker signed the bill into law on Friday it will not officially take effect until later this month.
Similar measures have been introduced in recent weeks in a number of U.S. states with Republican governors, including Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan and Florida, raising concerns among Democrats that the effort, which has been characterized as needed to close gaping deficits, is really the opening salvo of the 2012 presidential election.
In Wisconsin, a state where collective bargaining for public employees was born more than 50 years ago, the loss this week seems to have roused Democrats and organized labor, who are focusing their anger on an effort to remove eight vulnerable Republicans in the state Senate through recall elections.
Bill opponents have also vowed to recall Walker, though state law makes that impossible before he hits his first anniversary in office in early January 2012.
(Reporting by James B. Kelleher and Greg McCune, additional writing by Mary Wisniewski)