OLYMPIA, Wash. -- With chants of "We are one!" and "Put people first!," thousands of union members rallied at the state Capitol Friday, urging lawmakers to spare public programs from deep budget cuts as they seek to address a looming $5 billion deficit.
The Washington State Patrol estimated 7,000 people gathered outside the main legislative building, while labor group leaders put the figure closer to 12,000. Busloads of protesters arrived throughout the morning, most were members of public and private unions from around the state. They congregated on the Capitol steps, where they held speeches, rallied and carried signs.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, called it "The biggest demonstration I've seen in years."
House lawmakers plan to vote in the next day or two on a budget proposal that would reduce state spending by $4.4 billion for the 2011-2013 budget cycle. Senate leaders will unveil their own plan next week.
Friday's rally caps several days of boisterous demonstrations in Olympia over proposed spending cuts that labor groups say will place an unfair burden on working families. In each rally this week, activists encouraged lawmakers to target tax loopholes instead of making cuts to education, health and social services.
"I've been doing this for 24 years for the union. It is the worst I've ever seen. I'm concerned that we're going on a race to the bottom," said Tim Welch, Washington Federation of State Employees. "We have no intention of disrupting business. But we do have an intention of making ourselves known and getting our message across."
Unlike Thursday, Friday's demonstration was peaceful. On Thursday some 500 protesters gathered at the Capitol. The State Patrol escorted 30 protesters out the House of Representatives after they interrupted the proceedings. Troopers arrested 17 demonstrators who were accused of trying to push their way into the governor's office.
And the last two nights, about 20 activists slept on the marble floor in the Capitol rotunda for a sleep-in rally. Their message to lawmakers: Close big business tax loopholes and save programs for the poor and needy.
"So we are going to stay here. We are going to maintain an occupation and a presence in this building for as long as we can," said Mark Taylor-Canfield, protester. "And there are some people willing to be arrested if that's what it takes. But we're hoping that doesn't have to happen."
While the sleep-in protesters left quietly Friday morning, they promised to be back, possibly for another sleep-in Friday night.
"This is an ongoing movement," said one protester.
KING 5's Roberta Romero contributed to this report.