By James B. Kelleher
MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - As many as 100,000 people protested at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Saturday against a new law severely restricting government unions, and they greeted as returning heroes Democratic lawmakers who fled the state to stall the measure.
The lawmakers' gambit of leaving Wisconsin failed to stop the proposal, which was signed into law on Friday by Republican Governor Scott Walker. But it energized the union movement and its supporters nationwide.
The size of the protests has grown during the month since the controversy began and again on Saturday topped those seen in Madison during the Vietnam War, police said.
Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain estimated the crowd on Saturday at 85,000 to 100,000 people, exceeding an estimated 70,000 two weeks ago. State Capitol police put the crowd at about 68,000 on Saturday.
Wisconsin has become the focal point of a national debate over how to restore the financial health of U.S. states and local governments struggling under a mountain of debt and gaping budget deficits.
Republicans, emboldened by their sweeping victory in the 2010 elections, are slashing spending, and Wisconsin's Walker is leading the charge with $1.27 billion in cuts to local governments over the next two years. Most Democrats and their union allies are fiercely resisting.
Unions fear that the restrictions on collective bargaining rights approved in Wisconsin will allow Republicans to cut spending on the backs of public servants and encourage more populous states such as Ohio to follow suit.
The crowd on Saturday, bundled up in temperatures of about 20 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill, sang patriotic songs including "America" and "This Land is Your Land." As throughout the last month the demonstration was remarkably peaceful.
"You (Governor Walker) do not understand. Rights die hard in America," said Assembly minority leader Pete Barca. "Rights die harder in the Heartland."
The stars of the rally were Democratic state Senators who returned to Wisconsin after three weeks in exile in Illinois to stall the measure's approval.
"It's so good to be home in Wisconsin," said Democratic Senate minority leader Mark Miller, speaking to demonstrators, who chanted "Welcome Home" and "We're With You."
In a statement, Republican Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, who was instrumental in shepherding the union restrictions through the legislature, blasted the Democrats.
"It's an absolute insult to the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who are struggling to find a job, much less one they can run away from and go down to Illinois -- with pay," Fitzgerald said.
Protests were held across the state on Saturday in addition to those in Madison.
The new law will strip public sector labor unions of collective bargaining rights except for wages, and with increases limited to the level of inflation. Pay rises above inflation would have to be put to a referendum of voters. Unions would have to be recertified annually and public servants would pay more for health insurance and pensions.
Restrictions on public sector unions have been introduced in a number of other U.S. states with Republican governors, including Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan and Florida. Some Democrats see it as the opening salvo of the 2012 presidential election because unions are the biggest single contributors to the Democratic party.
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.
Several booths were set up at the rally collecting signatures to recall Walker and the eight Republican senators who are eligible for recall.
(Reporting by James B. Kelleher, Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)