The Democratic state senators who left Wisconsin to protest Republican legislation to weaken union rights for public workers returned Saturday to thousands of supporters who pledged to continue fighting.

“It’s great to be back in Wisconsin,” said state Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay, one of the 14 lawmakers who returned home after three weeks of self-imposed exile in Illinois.

A cheering crowd bundled up against temperatures in the 30s and stood on the grounds of the state Capitol to ring cowbells and chant “Thank you! Thank you!” to the lawmakers they dubbed the “Fab 14.” State police estimated that 68,000 people had gathered by the start of the rally.

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Hansen choked up as he talked of the stresses of life on the lam and of missing home and family.

“So people think this is a picnic for us — they’re wrong,” he said. “We did it for the right reasons. We stood up for our working men and women in the state.”

He said it was difficult to keep all 14 senators united as pressure grew to return to Wisconsin.

“We’re an independent group, but we held it together,” Hansen said, noting that the decision to flee the state helped draw national attention and spur a countrywide debate about collective-bargaining rights.

The absence of the 14 lawmakers was designed to leave the Senate one vote short of the number needed to pass fiscal measures, including a budget proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The budget included a provision to significantly reduce the bargaining powers of about 175,000 public employees at the state, county and municipal levels. State police officers and firefighters were exempted.

Republicans maneuvered around that obstacle by segregating the collective-bargaining provisions of the legislation, which could be passed with fewer members present.

Walker signed that bill into law Friday, saying the changes were necessary to resolve a budget deficit that is projected to grow to $3.6 billion over two years. But the division over the measure, which spawned a month of protests at the state Capitol by organized labor and Democratic allies, is likely to continue.

“We’re on a high,” Hansen said. “We lost the battle, but we’re going to win the war. I think we’ve got the momentum on our side. Every poll I’ve seen, the people believe in what we’re doing. It’s about standing up for democracy.”

Democrats have said they will fight the law in the courts and have begun circulating recall petitions targeting the Republicans who voted in favor of the legislation. Some Republicans have also launched recall efforts to try to knock out several of the Democrats who fled the state.

Officials in the county that includes Madison unsuccessfully sought an emergency injunction Friday to block the law, charging that Republicans had violated open-meeting laws. The court has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday.

On Saturday, between speakers that included the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and actor Tony Shalhoub, the pro-union crowd shouted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Scott Walker has got to go!” referring to the Republican governor.

Among the demonstrators were a handful of farmers who drove about 30 tractors to the rally.

According to the Associated Press, Tod Pulvermacher, 33, drove a tractor towing a manure spreader that carried a sign reading, “Walker’s bill belongs here.”

“Farmers are working-class Americans,” he said as the crowd around him started to cheer. “We work for a living as hard as anybody, and this is about all of us.”

Pulvermacher said the fight against the law was “everybody’s fight” and it was just beginning. “If we can keep the energy high, we can change a lot of things in Wisconsin in the next year,” he said.