By BARBARA RODRIGUEZ
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Thousands of pro-union demonstrators descended on the Wisconsin Capitol on Saturday to voice their anger at Gov. Scott Walker and his conservative agenda, using the anniversary of the passage of his signature collective bargaining law to rally support for efforts to remove him and five other Republicans from office.
An estimated 35,000 people, including many members of public employee unions who lost nearly all their collective bargaining rights because of the Republican-backed law, chanted, drummed and waved anti-Walker signs. It was a re-enactment of a scene that played out daily in some form or another in the weeks leading up to the decisive vote.
“We’re baaaack!” Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, told the crowd at the Capitol Square, eliciting a roar of approval. Neuenfeldt, whose union organized the rally, said Walker has sold out Wisconsin residents to benefit big business, and he called those gathered to redouble their efforts to recall Walker from office.
Pam Davidson, a retired public school teacher from Mequon, Wis., held a sign showing a cartoonish shark biting teachers and students. She said it reflected her feelings toward Walker’s cuts to education.
“I’ve just been so angry about everything that’s been going on,” she said. “It’s actually fulfilling for me to be here, to see so many people feel the same way I do. I feel like I’m a part of history.”
Larry Christianson, a retired consultant from Madison, held a sign that read, “Fire the Liar,” and said he had at least 40 other signs at home.
“I’ve been here about 100 times in the last year. There’s a good crowd here. People are motivated. They’re motivated to get Walker out of office,” he said.
The bill Walker proposed and helped push through the Legislature stripped most public workers of collective bargaining rights and forced them to pay more for their pensions and benefits, which amounted to a pay cut.
Walker and the leading Republican lawmakers argued that the law was necessary to help balance the state’s $3.6 billion budget deficit. But Democrats and labor leaders said the law was meant to undermine the unions, which are an important part of the Democrats’ constituency.
Almost as soon as it was proposed, tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the Capitol to protest the bill, which ended up being one of the most divisive pieces of legislation in state history.
Many were public employees, including teachers. They loudly camped inside the Capitol for 24 hours a day and for three weeks straight.
Democratic state senators added a twist to the story when they abruptly fled the state to nearby Illinois in a futile attempt to block a vote on the proposal. But the Republican-majority Legislature got around the tactic, and Walker signed the plan into law in March 2011.
Talk of recalling the governor began almost immediately, and Democrats submitted more than a million petition signatures in January to begin the recall election process for Walker, Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four GOP state senators.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor had no official events scheduled over the weekend. But Saturday morning, Walker posted on Twitter: “Some want to drag WI backwards and rehash debates of the past. We want to move WI forward.”
Earlier Saturday, Democrats took jabs at the governor at a candidate forum hosted by the Wisconsin State Building Trades group. Speakers included Kathleen Falk and Kathleen Vinehout, who plan to run against Walker in a possible recall election. They spoke briefly about their platforms, but devoted most of their time criticizing Walker’s leadership.
Falk, who has received endorsements from several union groups, later said she marched around the Capitol with protesters. She said the turnout was a sign of people’s anger toward Walker.
“It demonstrates the very serious commitment of Wisconsin citizens to elect a new governor that’s on their side instead of a governor who’s divided us and whose way hasn’t worked,” she said.