MADISON, Wis. - On the coldest, most miserable day of the now epic battle here for worker's rights, state police, using handheld clickers, counted 6,000 people as they made their way into the Capitol. Workers and their allies, in protest of Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to take collective bargaining rights away from public employees, have occupied the building for more than a week.
"We didn't think we'd see this many here today," said a state policeman who was ushering the crowds into the building.
Also on Feb. 21, thousands stayed outside, some staging the twelfth major rally since the protests began, while others held hands and formed a human chain around the ornate 19th century edifice. There were more demonstrators than needed to complete the chain so they doubled up again and again until the formation became a march around the capitol.
When Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers union, spoke to the thousands rallying outside, hundreds in the crowd, standing in the slush and ice, waved the sign his union had distributed: "One More Day," it read.
"We've used that slogan through many struggles," he said. "We know it's smart to fight when we believe we can win. What it takes is outlasting the boss by one day - fighting a day longer than he does. And that's what we all are doing now. It's how we will defeat Walker. We will fight a day longer than him, no matter how many days it takes." His words seemed to warm the crowds, who broke out into prolonged cheering and applause.
Gerard described what he had seen minutes before, when he toured the occupied Capitol. "I saw fat, white middle-aged men like me," he said, "but I saw them linking arms with people of every race, creed, color and age, fighting together for their rights and for a future for their children and grandchildren." Again, the people cheered. Some hugged the strangers or the friends standing next to them.
While Gerard spoke people off to the side of the speaker's platform began stacking hundreds of pizzas from a local pizzeria, paid for by union supporters who had called into the shop. It was just one of many efforts by local businesses and restaurants to help feed the thousands who have come to Madison.
Workers at the Irish pub, Starbucks, Subway and an Indian restaurant across from the Capitol all said that union members supporting the protests were calling in to purchase gift certificates the venders could use to feed demonstrators for free.
Late in the afternoon 60 firefighters from around the area met at the city's Fire Station #1. They marched from there to the Capitol, lugging bulky blankets and bags of food to spend the night with hundreds of other protesters. As the crowds lining the streets around the Capitol saw them, they yelled support and flashed "V" signs.
Only an hour earlier, a large contingent of Steelworkers had joined the sleep-in. The firefighters are a favorite of almost all the protestors because of the strong backing they have given to the demonstrators. The Republican governor had hoped that by exempting firefighters and police from some parts of his anti-worker legislation, he would split the labor movement.
"We just couldn't stand by and let Walker do this to our brothers and sisters," said Marlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin, as he marched toward the Capitol. "We are firefighters, we respond to emergencies and we are responding to an emergency of the middle class."
Gerard drew cheers in the Capitol rotunda earlier when he warned that it would be difficult for the governor to remove steel workers determined to sleep in. "When you throw in the firefighters, it will be impossible," he said.
Asked how he felt about the cheers coming from other demonstrators, Pete Silva, a firefighter from Kenosha, said. "We recognize how important this is and how much it lifts the spirits of everyone when we join in and give our support. It is very humbling."
Image: Workers occupy legislature. Teresa Albano/PW