by Carl Sack
MADISON, Wis.—Tens of thousands of workers, students, and their allies from around Wisconsin and beyond have been protesting in Capitol Square every day since Sunday, Feb. 20 to save their benefits and collective bargaining rights.
Schools have closed due to teacher absences and student walkouts, firefighters and prison guards have taken off work despite threats of mass firing, and the unrest threatens to spread into a general strike if the governor and Republican-controlled legislature do not back down on their concession demands.
“We’re ground zero for the United States right now. … We’re here for Wisconsin, but in many ways we’re here for the entire United States, for all the workers,” said one protester, a teacher at Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville. Solidarity protests have spread around the country, with workers in Ohio and Indiana facing similar attacks beginning to emulate Wisconsin’s spirit of rebellion.
The uprising began after the state’s new Republican governor, Scott Walker, issued a sweeping assault on public-sector workers on Friday, Feb. 18. Calling his legislation a “budget repair bill,” Walker sought to outlaw collective bargaining by 225,000 state and local government workers on everything but wage increases, which would themselves be limited by the Consumer Price Index.
If passed, this legislation would represent the biggest restriction on public workers’ right to organize in the U.S. since the 1960s. The bill would also double public workers’ contributions to their health plans, to 12 percent, and raise worker contributions to pensions from nothing to 5.8 percent. Included in the austerity measures are massive cuts to public schools, state colleges and universities, and BadgerCare, the state health insurance program for low-income workers and the poor. It includes a racist provision to exclude undocumented workers from BadgerCare.
Walker has absurdly called the bill’s attacks on workers “modest,” claiming that the state is “broke” with a $3.6 billion budget deficit, and that greedy public-sector workers have better pay and benefits than their private-sector counterparts. But a study by the Economic Policy Institute put the lie to these claims, showing that public workers in Wisconsin are paid 4.8% less than comparable workers of private businesses. Additionally, the new legislature and governor have already given away more than the anti-worker bill’s $150 million-a-year savings in tax breaks to the wealthy. Huffington Post blogger Robert Greenwald pointed out that the state would save over 10 times that amount by bringing all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan.
In announcing the bill, Walker threatened to use the National Guard as strike-breakers should there be any disruptions to public services, such as action by prison guards. At noon on Tuesday, Feb. 22, hundreds of prison guards marched at the capitol. Hundreds of firefighters, who were exempted from the bill along with cops in a divide-and-conquer bid, have marched in uniform almost daily, while police unions have released statements against the bill and in solidarity with protesters.
What began as union-sponsored “Lobby Days” on Feb. 14 quickly turned into mass protest as thousands descended on the capitol and rank-and-file workers initiated job actions. Dozens of school districts, including the state’s largest, Madison and Milwaukee, shut down for multiple days due to “sick-outs” by teachers, despite some districts’ threats of mass firings. Thousands of high school and college students from around the state have held walkouts.
On Tuesday, Feb. 15, a finance committee hearing on the bill lasting late into the night turned into a sleepover when the chair shut the session down. The spontaneous refusal of young people to leave the capitol building has turned into a well-organized occupation, with teams for food and supply distribution, medical needs, and information distribution.
The walls and pillars on three floors of the building are increasingly plastered with colorful banners, homemade signs with creative slogans, statements of solidarity, fliers for forums and meetings. Pizza, chili, fruit, and chocolate are constantly resupplied with donations from around the world. In the center of the massive rotunda, surrounded by a diverse crowd, young people hold court with a bullhorn, offering an open mike for speeches and leading chants and songs that reverberate throughout the building.
Hundreds of cops are stationed within and around the capitol, but have so far taken a non-confrontational, even friendly stance, engaging in discussion with protesters and amongst each other and in many cases expressing solidarity with the protesters. But they have not refused orders to close off the wing with the Assembly and Governor’s conference room, and protesters have not attempted confrontational civil disobedience. Fliers posted at all of the building entrances urge protesters to “remember, this is a peaceful protest.”
On Thursday, Feb. 17, all 14 state Senate Democrats left Wisconsin to deny the quorum needed to debate the bill. Under continued pressure from the mass protest and their union-staff backers, they have agreed to stay away for an unspecified amount of time, earning them much praise and adulation from protesters. But no apology has been forthcoming from the two Senate Democrats, Jeff Plale and former majority leader Russ Decker, who voted against ratifying already-negotiated public worker contracts in December, paving the way for Walker’s attempt at union-busting.
On Feb. 22, Democrats in the Indiana House of Representatives copycatted the Wisconsin Democrats’ actions over anti-union legislation there that could deprive them of a source of election campaign funding.
The largest rallies in Madison to date were on Saturday, Feb. 19, with a sea of 65,000 red-clad protesters surrounding the capitol. A counter-demonstration organized by the Tea Party drew about 5000.
On Feb. 23, Walker was caught by a prank phone caller stating that he planned to plant provocateurs among protesters. The caller, on-line journalist Ian Murphy, pretended to be David Koch, one of the billionaire industrialist brothers who have bankrolled the Tea Party and gave $43,000 to Walker’s election campaign.
During the workweek, twice-a-day outdoor rallies continue to number in the thousands, even after Wisconsin Education Association Council president Mary Bell ordered teachers back to work on Feb. 22. (Bell recently did an about-face on upholding teachers’ bargaining rights with a sellout proposal for “school reform” including “performance-based” teacher pay and promotion, a giveaway to the right wing.)
Bell is representative of the sort of mixed politics shown by organized labor in Wisconsin. While there is unified agreement against the bill’s collective bargaining provisions, public employee union officials have worked with their Democratic Party patrons to promote “compromise,” selling out low-income workers and the poor in exchange for maintaining union rights—a proposal categorically rejected by Walker. They don’t discuss what those “rights” are worth if unions are unable to hold onto basic living-wage pay and benefits.
A significant layer of workers accepts the line that they need to “sacrifice” to “help fix” a manufactured budget crisis, and proposing “compromise” is worth it to show (as if it wasn’t already clear!) that Walker’s main intention is to bust the unions. But many more protesters are upholding the no-compromise slogan, “kill the bill!” Among the many banners in the capitol rotunda, a giant sheet appeared some time on Feb. 22, obviously in response to overtures for compromise, that read, “kill the whole bill!”
Behind the chants of “it’s not about the money, it’s about rights!” many rank-and-file union members and their allies recognize the massive harm that Walker’s austerity measures would cause to public education, low-income workers, the poor, and minorities, who would be disproportionately impacted. The Madison weekly newspaper The Isthmus quoted Ramona Tenosorio, a UW-Milwaukee graduate student and union member in the Teaching Assistant Association: “I make less than $20,000 a year supporting a family of six. … These cuts would cause devastation for my family.”
While state union officials so far have jumped for their Democratic Party masters, on the local level militancy has been growing. After a call by socialist groups to build for a general strike, the South Central Labor Council, the AFL-CIO council of union locals in the Madison area, passed a resolution “endors[ing] a general strike” and going “on record as opposing all provisions contained in Walker’s ‘budget repair bill.”
Although the majority of pre-printed union placards and rally speakers have called for removing Walker from office and supporting corporate-funded Democrats, some statements on the capitol walls and homemade placards have called for building a new labor party to fight for workers’ political power. Socialist Action calls for organizing a broad Congress of Labor to plan the fightback against capitalism’s accelerating war on all working people.
The article above first appeared in the March 2011 edition of Socialist Action newspaper.