Dispatches from the class struggle in Wisconsin: Interviews with two Wisconsin Solidarity members
How have you participated in the protests?
Connor: I’ve been commuting these last several days to Madison. As I student at UW-Milwaukee, I’ve missed a week of class. Except for today [Sunday 2/20], I’ve been in and out of Milwaukee everyday since Tuesday, commuting to Madison to participate in the protests. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at UW-Milwaukee organized a walkout on Thursday, numbering in the thousands, which pretty much shut down the campus. The Milwaukee Public School District closed down on Friday. By Friday, Milwaukee activists were convincing people to go to Madison. Buses have been arranged to take people to Madison and people have been commuting to the capital from all over the state.
How would you describe the atmosphere of Madison?
AFSCME had a huge presence earlier in the week. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, a huge student contingent showed up at the Capitol. SLAC (Student Labor Action Coalition at UW-Madison), TAA (UW-Madison graduate union) and MGAA (UW-Milwaukee graduate union) have organized rallies at the capitol. MGAA has a big presence in the Capitol building.
There are a lot of folks out there though, not just students and graduate students. The media has been misrepresenting the crowd as mostly students and teachers. There are so many public workers on the ground, in addition to ironworkers, steelworkers, and the private sector has shown up as well. It is mixed bag of protesters.
The police have cordoned off parts of the Capitol and reduced the number of protesters inside the Capitol building. The Capitol acts as sort of the nerve center of the movement. UW-Madison people have placed a big emphasis on staying in the Capitol building and not leaving. The people are keeping the Capitol open by speaking 2 minutes during the public hearing sessions. The most profound thing is that the Capitol has become a big community of people. Some of the Assembly Democrats and Senators have donated food. A community people have decided to dig in and not leave.
What is the morale of the protesters?
On Saturday and Sunday, the numbers were so large, that people became more optimistic. But it is hard to tell. I stayed in the Capitol building overnight on Tuesday. Earlier in the week, there was more pessimism. The union leadership was giving off bad vibes. They were telling the rank-and-file workers that we are probably going to lose. Now, the union leadership is more optimistic. Highly optimistic on Saturday compared to earlier in the week, when labor organizers were convinced they could not win, but now some are more confident. Now unions are trying to get workers from around the state to Madison, and there is a large amount of free transportation to the capital.
Where is the momentum heading right now and where do people see the protests going?
The votes on the bill will probably change the momentum of the protests. Rumors are that the vote on the bill will take place this Tuesday. They want to say Tuesday, but no one is certain. MGAA organized another sick-out for tomorrow. They [MGAA] are pretty militant and have been pushing for more action, calling for sick-outs and the like. The TAA and MTI (Madison Teachers Inc., teachers union) are also calling for another sick-out tomorrow.
What is the atmosphere of Madison right now?
Kate: I have never seen Madison like this before. I grew up here, and it’s an amazing experience from that standpoint. I’ve never seen this kind of cohesive community before. It’s amazing walking around downtown Madison and the outskirts seeing signs in stores, businesses, homes saying “we support organized labor” and other protest signs. Even out in the suburbs, where I work. It feels very electric.
Today [Sunday 2/20] was a low day in terms of protesting. I don’t think it was a bad energy, I don’t think people were discouraged¬—just quiet. It was mostly because of the weather—it was a very icy day—which was maybe good because it forced people to take a day off, so they’ll be energized for tomorrow.
I got to the Capitol at 3pm. The only action was within the capitol, and it felt like being there at night—people playing music and talking. When I got there, there were about 700 people. I want to emphasize that although it was quiet, people were not discouraged and everyone seemed very happy to be in this space with one another.
I was about to ask about that—what is the level of momentum among protesters?
Over the course of the week, it escalated every day. Saturday was no different—the biggest it’s been yet. Tomorrow [Monday 2/21] is President’s Day and a lot of public institutions will be closed, so a lot of people who haven’t been able to be out will be—we will see a lot of new communities out on the streets. Madison and surrounding police and firemen are sending staff to protest; there’s a lot of cross-union solidarity.
It’s very inspiring to people, both in Wisconsin and outside of Wisconsin. Yesterday showed us, with 70,000 people coming out to be there, that if the teachers go on strike they will have support, which is something we need to keep pushing. Seeing those large numbers has such a huge impact—everyone I’ve talked to has had one moment where they were in tears, because it was so moving how people were coming together and working together without any particular leadership, just trying to help each other out so they could keep protesting. Yesterday people realized that this is massive.
What is the mental time frame of the demonstrators—how long do they expect the struggle to last?
I don’t know what people think the time frame is, but people want to be heard now. They want this bill to die tomorrow. They’re looking to the beginning of this week as the end. I think it’ll be interesting because if something doesn’t happen with the bill in the next few days—I think a lot of unions over the weekend have taken the time to say, are we gonna go on strike or not? What is our investment in this? If nothing happens with the bill Monday or Tuesday, we’re gonna see strikes by the end of the week. A formal strike, not just sickouts. At this point it’s a standoff—we have the numbers, Walker has the entire country watching him. Time-frame-wise, he wants to win. Initially when he started this he thought if he could wait everyone out he could get it through.
What are the major sectors involved?
The people who it affects the most are teachers and municipal workers across the state. (Madison pushed through municipal contracts the other night, so its municipal workers are safe until 2012). Private unions are safe for now, as are police and firemen. The teachers and TAAs are there protesting for their own livelihood. Other unions are coming out in solidarity, knowing that they’re next. Even if it doesn’t affect their job, it affects them—this attack on public services will affect our communities directly.
Are there political divisions between the activists? What kinds of political and tactical choices are people having to make?
Politically there’s a very wide spectrum at this protest, in the sense that there are people who voted for Walker, vote Republican, but who are affected by this bill and are pro-union. There are a lot of liberals and soft Democrats. And a lot of socialist/anarchist/radical folks. The discussion is all about families, communities, unions. It doesn’t get into issues like what the working class is, what capitalism is—of course people who are being directly affected by this are talking about it, but that’s not everyone’s M.O. One of the things we [socialists] want to be doing, but don’t necessarily have the capacity to do, is start talking about “the working class”—this is a working-class struggle, we need to tax the rich, we need to kick Walker out of office. It’s not our job to be the public speakers for those ideas, but the educators, the catalysts.
Any other notable features?
I’ve probably emphasized this so much, but I have never been so proud to be from Wisconsin. I’ve run into three of my elementary school teachers at this protest—it’s been a really special experience being at the protest with them. Of course, even if I wasn’t from Wisconsin I’d be here, but I feel like for all the other protests I’ve been part of, like anti-war protests, some of it is personal but a lot of it isn’t—a lot of it is about other people experiencing these things. But so much of this is about my community, the community that raised me and shaped me. I’ve never been a part of a struggle like this. Being with my teachers at these protests is such a moving and humbling experience in so many ways. I have all these memories oh, you taught me this!—and now I’m fighting so you can teach some other kid this.
I’ve heard the struggle in Ohio will be heating up this week; will that strengthen the movement in Wisconsin?
Every little bit helps, even people saying they’re in solidarity with us from different places—I’ve heard that there are people in the Middle East that have tweeted that they’re in solidarity with us. Knowing that the struggle is national and that people are fighting for the same thing in different places makes this feel so much more important.