MADISON—On Jan. 25, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker gave his State of the State address, in which he touted fake “job creation” and balancing the budget on the backs of state workers, who took a more than 8% pay and benefit cut and lost their collective bargaining rights.
Earlier in the day, an independent “People’s State of the State” was held in the capitol, in which anyone could testify and which was broadcast live over the internet. Some spoke passionately about what the austerity measures have meant for working people here. One speaker testified that her child’s classroom aide needed food stamps and lost health insurance for her family when the premiums increased, while another said that her son opted out of going to college because he was afraid of accruing student loan debt that he wouldn’t be able to repay.
That evening, over 400 people gathered on the steps outside the capitol to protest a bill that would gut the state’s environmental standards to facilitate an open-pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin. The rally was endorsed by 20 organizations and featured a number of speakers, including environmentalists, pro-labor groups, and tribal elders from the Bad River Band of Ojibwe, whose Indian reservation is downstream of the proposed mine.
The State Assembly took up the mining bill the following day. Two busloads of Ojibwe people, including many youth, traveled over 250 miles from Bad River to Madison, greeting legislators as they came into the Assembly chambers with anti-mine banners and asking some point-blank, “Are you going to kill me?” The tribe has characterized the mine as a life-or-death issue for them, as its runoff could pollute their water source and damage wild rice beds that they rely on for food and income. One Ojibwe drummer was cited by the cops with “disorderly conduct” for drumming a traditional song in the capitol rotunda.
A public speak-out on the mining bill was held throughout the day and live webcasted. Before the vote, the Assembly gallery was cleared of spectators when several broke administrative rules by holding signs and taking photos. A crowd of the 50 or so who were ejected chanted outside of the chamber as the bill was passed 59-36. The legislation now must go through the Senate, where more opposition to some provisions is expected. Senate Republicans support the bill as is, while Democrats have said they want to tweak the bill to encourage “responsible mining” of the Penokees—an oxymoron according to Ojibwe tribes and their allies.
Meanwhile, unions and their allies are gearing up for a week of protests in mid-February marking the first anniversary of the Wisconsin uprising. One year ago, hundreds of thousands took to the streets here, and the state capitol was occupied for 17 days and nights, in a heroic attempt to defend the rights of public workers to collectively bargain with the state that inspired working people around the world and the ongoing Occupy movement. A large turnout is expected on Feb. 11 and the following days for planned marches and rallies. Stay tuned!
> The article above was written by Carl Sack, and first appeared in the February 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.