February 19, 2011- In opposing rallies that were both peaceful and spirited, an estimated 60,000 demonstrators surrounded the Wisconsin State Capitol on Saturday, the largest crowd yet in a weeklong clash that has become the center of a broader ideological battle over union rights and taxes.
State workers and pro-labor activists have filled the streets of downtown Madison to oppose Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to force Wisconsin employees to contribute more for their health care and pensions and to strip them of their collective bargaining rights.
With activists flying in from around the country, those protests were countered Saturday by a smaller but equally strident crowd of supporters of Walker’s state budget measure.
The Capitol rotunda echoed with drums and chants while pro-labor protesters outside chanted “Kill the bill.” The tea party-led activists responded with chanted slogans including “Do your job!”
What started out as a local political fight has spread to other Rust Belt states hit hard by the recession, with newly elected Republican governors and legislators trying to control costs by muscling concessions from government worker unions.
Nearly identical measures to the one in Wisconsin are advancing in Ohio and Iowa, while Michigan and Indiana are exploring other ways of limiting protections for unionized government workers.
“This is where we’re gonna start,” said tea party organizer Melvin Timm of Neenah, Wis. “This is gonna set the tone.”
The Walker supporters rallied at one end of the Capitol, while union boosters surrounded them with a march around the square. The groups mingled and could sometimes only be differentiated by the signs they carried.
Some opposing activists could be seen locked in level-headed political conversations, while others engaged each other in spittle-flecked screaming fights before being encouraged to move along by police.
Under Walker’s proposal, government workers — other than police and firefighters — would have to pay half their pension costs and 12.6 percent of their health care costs. Walker has said the measure is needed because the state is “broke,” though some have challenged the GOP’s dire messages about the state’s financial shape.