MADISON, Wis. — Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore urged Wisconsin residents Saturday to fight against Republican efforts to strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights, telling thousands of protesters that "Madison is only the beginning."
The crowd roared in approval as Moore implored demonstrators to keep up their struggle against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation, saying they've galvanized the nation against the wealthy elite and comparing their fight to Egypt's revolt. He also thanked the 14 state Democratic senators who fled Wisconsin to block a vote on the bill, saying they'll go down in history books.
"We're going to do this together. Don't give up. Please don't give up," Moore told the protesters, who have swarmed the Capitol every day for close to three weeks.
Police said there were "tens of thousands" of protesters but didn't give a specific count. The vast majority of the crowd was pro-union, and no one was arrested or cited. Rallies drew huge crowds the previous two Saturdays, too: about 70,000 on Feb. 19, and an even larger one on Feb. 26.
Moore told them that the wealthy have overreached, first taking the working class' money and then taking their souls by shutting them up at the bargaining table. The crowd yelled "thank you" before Moore began to speak, and he responded: "All of America thanks you, Wisconsin."
Walker has said the legislation is needed to help ease a state deficit projected to hit $3.6 billion by mid-2013, though opponents see it as an effort to weaken unions.
Negotiations between Democrats and Republicans broke down Thursday, though communication lines remain open, Sen. Tim Cullen said Saturday. Cullen, one of the Democrats who fled the state, said it's difficult for either side to compromise since Democrats don't want to lose support from their base and Walker doesn't want to appear weak by backing down.
Walker's spokesman, Cullen Werwie, wrote in an e-mail Saturday that Walker wouldn't publicly comment on the negotiations but was focused on balancing the budget and following through on his campaign pledge to create 250,000 new jobs. Walker has said he wouldn't compromise on the collective bargaining issue or anything that saves the state money.
Playing to the hometown crowd, Moore disputed the governor's claims that Wisconsin was broke, saying the idea was as farfetched as the belief that the Green Bay Packers needed former quarterback Brett Favre to win a Super Bowl. The Packers won the title last month with Favre's replacement, Aaron Rodgers.
Activists began a sit-in at the Wisconsin Capitol on Feb. 15, and although a judge ended protestors' overnight stays late last week, several hundred were back in the rotunda Saturday chanting "Who's house? Our house!" and "Hey-hey, ho-ho, Scott Walker's got to go!"
Renee Peplinski, a fifth-grade teacher in Wisconsin Rapids, said she doesn't mind making financial concessions to help the state even though it would hurt her family. She's more concerned about losing her collective bargaining rights. Without union protections, teachers would be at the mercy of administrators who could decide to fire them for any perceived slight, she said.
"Every teacher I know is depressed," said Peplinski, 42. "Every minute of the day there's this black cloud."
Thousands more marched in the streets. They banged drums, waved flags and carrying signs with messages like "No one has ever died from overexposure to education," "Worst bill ever" and "Tree huggers for unions."
Meanwhile, two other Democratic senators who fled the state joined the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Chicago to urge Walker to negotiate with workers. Sen. Lena Taylor said Democrats left because they "needed to slow the bill down."
"I ask the governor, 'Do your job. Come to the table and speak to Wisconsin workers,'" Taylor said. "We agree that fiscally we need to do things differently. We even agree that there are some places where we need to talk about how we negotiate. ... However we refuse to accept in America that we don't believe that a voice at the table is an option. It is not an option of a leader and it surely is not the Wisconsin way."
Sen. Chris Larson urged protestors to stay strong.
"We've been here for the last 16 days we'll continue to be here until worker's rights are removed as the target in this budget repair bill by our governor," he said.
Walker has said the bill is needed to ease a deficit that could hit $137 million by July and $3.6 billion by the middle of 2013. His proposal comes up with the money for this year in part by forcing state employees to pay for half the cost of their pensions and twice their current health care premiums – concessions equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut.
With the labor bill stalled, Walker said layoffs may be necessary so the state can start to realize the $30 million savings he had assumed would come from the concessions. All state workers, except those at prisons, state hospitals and other facilities open around the clock, would be potential layoff targets.
Walker informed state employee unions Friday that he intends to issue layoff notices to 1,500 workers that would be effective on April 4.
Associated Press writer Caryn Rousseau contributed to this report from Chicago.