By James B. Kelleher
MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - A massive crowd gathered at the Wisconsin state Capitol on Saturday, one day after Republican Governor Scott Walker signed into law union restrictions that have sparked a 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 would approach the 70,000 to 100,000 on February 27, which was the largest demonstration at the state Capitol since the Vietnam War.
Though an official count was not yet available, the crowd Saturday seemed to surpass those numbers.
Democratic state Senators who left Wisconsin for Illinois, and stayed for three weeks to block the measure's path to approval, appeared at the afternoon rally. Though they ultimately failed to stop Republicans from passing the law, they received a hero's welcome from union members and their supporters.
"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."
"Our fight to protect union rights has become a fight to protect all our rights -- a fight to protect Democracy," said Miller. "You have inspired the nation with your passionate and peaceful protests."
In a statement, Republican Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, who was instrumental in shepherding the proposal through the legislature, said the 14 Democratic senators "pretend to be heroes for taking a three-week vacation."
"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.
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.
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 recent weeks in a number of other U.S. states with Republican governors, including Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan and Florida. This has raised concern among Democrats that the effort, which Republicans have said is 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.
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)