Image: Massive crowds gather at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison
Darren Hauck  /  Reuters
Massive crowds gather Saturday to see the 14 democratic senators who left the state to protest an anti-union bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker as protests continue at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison.
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updated 3/12/2011 11:44:39 PM ET 2011-03-13T04:44:39

Clogging the Wisconsin Capitol grounds and screaming angry chants, tens of thousands of undaunted pro-labor protesters descended on Madison again Saturday and vowed to focus on future elections now that contentious cuts to public worker union rights have become law.

Protests have rocked the Capitol almost every day since Gov. Scott Walker proposed taking nearly all collective bargaining rights away from public workers, but the largest came a day after the governor signed the measure into law. Madison Police estimated the crowd at 85,000 to 100,000 people — along with 50 tractors and one donkey — by late afternoon. No one was arrested.

Speakers delivered angry diatribes while the crowd carried signs comparing Walker to dictators and yelled thunderous chants of "this is what democracy looks like."

"This is so not the end," said protester Judy Gump, a 45-year-old English teacher at Madison Memorial High School. "This is what makes people more determined and makes them dig in."

Walker's signature on the measure capped a week of political maneuvering to end a bitter, month-long standoff that began when the state's 14 Democratic senators fled to Illinois in an ultimately futile attempt to block the legislation.

Throngs of protesters gathered Saturday outside a convention center where senators made their first public appearances in Madison since ending their self-imposed exile. Demonstrators treated the lawmakers like rock stars, yelling "Fab 14, our heroes!" and giddily snapping pictures.

All 14 Democrats later marched around the Capitol, trading chants of "thank you" with protesters who ringed the sidewalks. When the senators made their way to a stage, they promised to shift their energies toward recall drives already under way against eight of their GOP colleagues.

"Now ... we trade in our rally signs for clipboards and we take to the streets to recall the Republicans," Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee told the cheering crowd, "and in one year we recall the governor that refuses to listen."

Walker is not eligible to be recalled until he completes his first year in office in January 2012.

Eight of the Democrats also face recall efforts. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald issued a statement Saturday calling them the most shameful 14 people in the state.

"(Fleeing to Illinois) is 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.

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Walker's plan has spurred a national debate over labor rights. Its passage is a key victory for Republicans who have targeted unions in efforts to cut government spending across the country. Democrats see it as a blatant attempt to weaken organized labor, one of their strongest campaign allies.

Labor leaders have promised to use the setback to fire up members and mount a major counterattack against Republicans at the ballot box in 2012.

"We're never going to give up," said Marilyn Rolfsmeyer, 56, who serves as the 300-student Argyle School District's only art teacher. "What part of it don't they understand? There's hope here. I feel it. You feel the energy, the intensity. Somebody's got to be out there feeling it, too."

Dozens of fist-pumping farmers drew cheers as they chugged around the Capitol square in tractors bearing signs with messages such as "planting the seeds for a big season of recalls."

Tod Pulvermacher, 33, of Bear Valley, towed a manure spreader carrying a sign that read, "Walker's bill belongs here."

"Farmers are working-class Americans," he said as the crowd cheered. "We work for a living as hard as anybody, and this is about all of us."

Walker has repeatedly argued that ending collective bargaining gives local governments much-needed flexibility to confront cuts in state aid necessary to fix Wisconsin's deficit, which is expected to grow to $3.6 billion deficit over two years.

The new law erases public workers' ability to collectively bargain anything except wages up to the rate of inflation. It also requires them to contribute more to their pensions and health care, changes that amount to an 8 percent pay cut. Police and firefighters are exempt.

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The Senate Democrats had fled to deny Republicans, who hold a 19-14 Senate majority, the 20-member quorum needed to vote on measures that spend money. But GOP leaders worked around them Wednesday, calling a special committee to take spending items out of Walker's proposal.

The Senate passed it 18-1 minutes later. Assembly Republicans approved it the next day.

Democratic Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk has filed a lawsuit seeking to block the secretary of state from publishing the law, the last step before it takes effect. She argues the bill still contained fiscal items and that the committee meeting violated Wisconsin's open meeting law.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: 'Nuclear option' used to pass Wis. anti-union bill

Photos: The battle over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin

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  1. Massive crowds gather to see the 14 democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker as crowds continued to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison on Saturday, March 12. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Democratic Senator Lena Taylor, right, and civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson Jr. greet the crowd as they and the other Wisconsin State democratic senators that left the state to protest the bill proposed by the Gov. Scott Walker return to massive crowds that continue to protest at the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 12. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Republican Wisconsin State Legislatures look on as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker performs a ceremonial bill signing outside his office at the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 11. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Protesters shout outside the office of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as he held a ceremonial bill-signing on March 11. The bill essentially eliminates collective bargaining rights for public union workers except on wage issues (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protesters hold wooden letters that spell the word "shame" in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 10. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald makes the argument to pass the budget repair bill before the State Assembly in the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, Thursday, March 10. (Allen Fredrickson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Spectators in the gallery of the Wisconsin assembly chambers chant "shame" in protest after the House voted to pass the state's controversial budget bill in the Wisconsin assembly chamber on Thursday in Madison. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Democratic Rep. Jon Richards yells after a vote was cast in the Wisconsin Assembly chambers Thursday in Madison. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Wisconsin State Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-WI) flashes the peace sign after the House voted to pass the state's controversial budget bill in the Wisconsin assembly chamber on Thursday in Madison. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The statue "Forward" displays a new sign at the State Capitol in Madison on Thursday, the day after the Senate passed the governor's controversial budget repair bill. (Steve Apps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Erving Smith, of Madison, Wis., shouts at law enforcement personnel after he was slightly injured while being carried out of the Assembly Room lobby in Madison on Thursday, March 10. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Protesters get kicked out by police from the Wisconsin state assembly chamber as they try to block access to the chambers in Madison on March 10. (Carlos Javier Ortiz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Wisconsin Rep. Cory Mason, center, talks to protesters in the rotunda of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Wednesday, March 9, after demonstrators retook the Capitol building. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kensoha, center, calls an impromptu news conference March 9 after Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tears roll down the face of Liz Sanger of Madison, Wis., after the state Senate passed the budget repair bill following a meeting of a state Legislature conference committee at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., March 9. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Wisc. Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, is escorted out of the state Capitol in Madison, March 9, after Republicans in the Senate voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Opponents of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill deride legislators as they leave the senate parlor at the Wisconsin State Capitol Building where the Senate voted to move forward on an amended version of the controversial bill Wednesday. (John Hart / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. After a protester outside throws a snowball hitting a window at the state Capitol, State Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, D-Milladore, implores demonstrators to remain peaceful during a press conference of Democratic state Assembly members, March 9. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Helmut Kenies of the Wisconsin Historical Society sifts through hundreds of signs that were removed from the Wisconsin State Capitol on Tuesday, March 8 in Madison. Posters that were left behind by demostrators that occupied the State Capitol were collected and are being made available for people to claim them until this Friday. Select posters that are not claimed will be acquired by the Historical Society. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Filmmaker Michael Moore speaks to a crowd during a march and rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Saturday, March 5 in Madison. Thousands of demonstrators are staging a protest at the Capitol against Governor Scott Walker's attempt to push through a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for most government workers in the state. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Union members protest inside the Wisconsin Capitol on Friday, March 4, in Madison. Some demonstrators returned to the Capitol hours after they were forced to vacate the building after occupying it for more than two weeks. They are protesting Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to push through a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for most government workers in the state. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman talks with demonstrators Mark Dziedzic, left, and Jeff Dziedzic inside the state Capitol on March 4. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Wisconsin Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kensoha, celebrates with other lawmakers and protesters March 3 outside of the state Capitol in Madison after a judge ordered the Department of Administration to open the Capitol to normal business hours. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A police officer blocks an entrance of the Wisconsin State Capitol on Thursday. A Wisconsin judge ordered all of the pro-union protesters to leave the Capitol after they had camped out inside the building for two weeks. The judge also ruled that the state had violated the public's free speech and assembly rights by restricting access to the building. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Protesters celebrate as they walk outside of the state Capitol after a judge ordered the Department of Administration to open the Capitol to normal business hours. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Protesters wake-up outside of the state Capitol, Thursday in Madison after sleeping the night. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers are in their 16th day of protests. The Wisconsin Department of Administration officials shut the doors to many protesters and some chose to sleep outside. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Wisconsin State representative Fred Clark. left, meets with constituents at his desk outside the capitol building on March 2. Clark and several other Democrat members of the assembly moved their offices outside the building because of the difficulties the public was having entering the building which has been essentially locked down to prevent protestors from spending the night inside. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Demonstrators protest in a hallway below the assembly chamber where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was delivering his budget address to a joint session of the legislature at the capitol on March 1. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Union Iron Worker Randy Bryce of Milwaukee shows police a court order to open the doors of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, March 1. It was the 14th day of protests against the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Opponents to the governor's bill protest at the state Capitol on March 1. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Democrats refuse to stand as Gov. Scott Walker arrives to deliver his budget address to a joint session of the Legislature, March 1 in Madison. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Police stand in the rotunda of the State Capitol on Feb. 27 in Madison. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Damon Terrrell speaks to protesters at the State Capitol in on Feb. 27. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers protest outside of the State Capitol on Feb. 26. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Rally supporters hang an American flag from fourth floor windows of the State Capitol as thousands of opponents of Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill gather for ongoing protests inside and outside the State Capitol on Feb. 26. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Protesters gather in the rotunda of the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison the morning of Friday, Feb. 25, after the Assembly passed a bill ending most state worker collective bargaining rights. (Carlos Javier Ortiz / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Protesters who identified themselves as Kenosha city and county workers hold signs as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's plane flies away after his news conference about his budget repair bill at the Kenosha Airport in Kenosha, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25. (Mark Hertzberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Messages left by supporters protesting in the State Capitol are stuck on the office entrance of Wisconsin State Assemblyman Brett Hulsey on Feb. 25. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Ryan Eykholt of Madison, Wis., plays "This Land Is Your Land" during a protest at the state Capitol in Madison on Friday, Feb. 25, over the governor's proposed budget measures. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Standing beside fellow Assembly Democrats, State Rep. Christine Sinicki approaches the front of the chamber in outrage as their Republican counterparts cut off debate and vote on the budget repair bill in session at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., early Friday morning, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Protester Bridgette O'Brien of Elroy, Wis., does a morning routine of yoga at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25 before another day of protesting. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Escorted by law enforcement officers, Assembly Republicans exit the state Capitol after cutting off debate and rapidly voting to pass a controversial budget repair bill in the state Assembly in Madison, Wis., on Friday, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Assembly Democrats wave to protesters, thanking them after Republicans cut off debate and rapidly voted to pass a controversial budget repair bill in the state Assembly at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., early Friday, Feb. 25. (Michael P. King / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Wisconsin Reps. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, left, and Donna Seidel, D-Wausau, walk to the governor's office at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Thursday, Feb. 24. Opponents of the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers were in their 10th day of protests. Gov. Scott Walker was trying to get at least one Democratic senator back to the Capitol to vote on the bill. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Wisconsin Democratic state Sens. Tim Cullen, left, and Robert Jauch leave a home on Thursday, Feb. 24, in Woodstock, Ill. The senators have been in Illinois after leaving Wisconsin to try to stop a vote on bill that would take away public workers' collective bargaining rights. (Lauren M. Anderson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Opponents of the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers sleep on the floor of the rotunda at the state Capitol on Feb. 24. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Wisconsin state representatives start to fade as they listen to arguments on one of the expected 200 amendments to the governor's budget bill early Feb. 24. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. A protester sleeps on the floor in the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Protesters sleep in the rotunda of the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Democratic and Republican assembly members rise before the start of a session Feb. 22. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Teamsters President James Hoffa speaks at a rally in the Capitol on Feb. 23. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pauses while giving an address in Madison on Feb. 22. to explain his budget bill. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. A man sits surrounded by protesters' signs at the state Capitol in Madison on Feb. 22. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. Protesters walk outside the Wisconsin Capitol on Feb. 22. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. Opponents of Walker's budget bill sleep in the rotunda on Feb. 22. (John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. John Henneman, left, and Dan Kuhl, right, teachers from Wisconsin Rapids, protest Feb. 21 outside the King Street entrance to the Capitol. (Steve Apps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. A protester gestures in the Capitol building, after a week's mass protest against Walker's bill on Feb. 21. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. Kathryn Schulze delivers a silent message at the state Capitol on Feb. 21. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. Protesters rest inside the State Capitol on Feb. 21 in Madison. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  60. Arnold Chevalier, left, of Stoughton, Wis., shouts inside the State Capitol on Monday. (Jeffrey Phelps / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  61. State Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-WI) speaks to Democratic Senators via telephone during a meeting of the committee for Senate Organization inside the Wisconsin State Capitol on Monday. (Eric Thayer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  62. A union advocate, left, and a Tea Party supporter argue in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 19, on the grounds of State Capitol over the governor's proposed budget bill. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  63. About 30 members of the AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, protest State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester on Feb. 19. (Scott Anderson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  64. Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 19. A few dozen police officers stood between supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker on the muddy east lawn of the Capitol and the much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators who surrounded them. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  65. Protestors take a moment to rest inside a bus shelter as crowds continue to gather at the State Capitol grounds, while members of the Wisconsin state government discuss the proposed bill by Gov. Scott Walker in Madison on Feb. 19. (Darren Hauck / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  66. Democratic Wisconsin Assembly members cheer on the crowd on the fourth day of large scale protests outside of the State Capitol in Madison on Feb. 18. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  67. Teacher Nicole North Hester, right, cries and applauds as union iron workers pass by during the fourth day of large demonstrations at the State Capitol on Feb. 18. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  68. Two protesters put up a sign at the State Capitol on Feb. 17, that reads "Run Dems Run" in support of 14 state Senators that have left the state in opposition the bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers. (Andy Manis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Timeline: Wisconsin protests

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