International Women's Day in Madison: "Women make up the majority of teachers, municipal and state government workers"

How did the idea of helping plan an International Women’s Day (IWD) march come about?

Kate: We had a Solidarity meeting on Sunday March 6. I brought the idea to hold a rally on Tuesday, International Women’s Day. Tessa, Rebecca, Colin, and myself got together decided to throw something together and make something happen. This IWD was particularly special because it was the 100th anniversary of its first celebration. This year is also the 100-year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. I thought it was very important to make the connection between IWD and what is happening in Wisconsin right now.

In Wisconsin, women make up the majority of teachers, municipal and state government workers. Women dominate the public sector in Wisconsin. Gov. Walker’s bill is an attack on women because the bill itself, not just the a few aspects of it, attacks so many social programs. Every disadvantaged community is going to be devastated. This struggle is more than just unions trying to be paid a half-decent wage. It is a broader issue than that because they are trying to give money to the rich and the corporations on the backs of everyone else.

So I saw lots of connections between the current battle and IWD. IWD is supposed to be a day that we recognize women’s struggle in terms of rights and gains. I can only draw one correlation: this whole thing is an attack on women. Clara Zetkin, the founder of the day, said that it is not about women and men; it is about women’s equality and especially with the proletarian movement, women and men struggling together. When I say women, I mean every woman, not just white women. It’s really important for me to emphasize this.

How did the march and rally unfold?

Kate: The whole rally was promoted through word-of mouth. We had a lineup of speakers and spoken word artists. Our march started out with around 150 people, we picked up another 150 people on the route, and when we reached the Capitol, there was another 300-400 people waiting at the Capitol. There was that wonderful moment when the two groups merged together at the Capitol. The march itself was very spirited and people were very happy to be there.

We didn’t have a permit for anything, because what went into effect on Tuesday was you have to now give 72 hour notice if you hold any rally or anything. We started the march at a square and when reached the first street the cops were nervous, but then we took over the street, where buses had to wait for us. Traffic had to stop for us for five to six blocks. We had several bus drivers put their fists up, and car passengers put their fists up too. This was during rush-hour traffic, around 5:30pm, which is quite amazing.

At the Capitol, we set up our sound system. We brought red carnations and purple daises; red carnations signify international women’s day, especially for radical communities. The LGBTQ movement, decades ago, initially had some problems with the mainstream women’s movement, so they started carrying purple flowers during IWD to signify queer people and people who reject gender binaries. There were flowers scattered throughout the march.

There were three firefighters in the crowd, two men, one woman. They asked us, “Can we play a song?” They were really respectful about it. I said, “sure, yeah”, so they played “God Bless America”. Up at the front, Tessa was invited to hold a rainbow flag between two firefighters. The solidarity that was there was important and how respectful they were. I thought it was very moving.

One of the Democratic Assembly members that people have been having problems with, Brett Hulsey, showed up and we didn’t let him speak to the crowd. At the end of the rally, we put our carnations on the Forward statue, which is a bronze stature showing a woman pointing forward by the capitol.

We tried to get a diverse crowd with the speakers. I thought that we did an okay job with the time that we had. We had one of my high school teachers, who radicalized me, give an amazing speech on the history of women’s struggle in the U.S., especially socialist women labor activists. We had a spoken word artist that slammed Gov. Scott Walker. We had an Israeli-American woman, who served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and has since become radicalized give an anti-imperialist perspective on this whole thing. We asked students from Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) to speak. Everyone was really awesome.

What could have been done better and where do you think this rally leads from here?

Kate: I think we could have done better if we had more time. We all worked so hard in a 50-hour period to make it happen. We also produced literature that we passed out at the rally, but made it relevant to the entire struggle. Women are most affected by Gov. Walker’s bill. These issues do not go away because it is no longer IWD. People are already thinking about this stuff in Madison without our help. For instance, on the morning of the rally, I was at work and a friend of mine was telling me that teachers in Madison are already working together on a write-up on how this is an attack on women. The level of discussion these last three weeks has been amazing.

I’m happy to provide this flyer and maybe this rally inspired people, but I think that many people were already there. People felt that we were in a stagnation period and were becoming a little pessimistic, so the rally helped get people’s spirits up and got them energized. I know that the rally energized me. Tessa, Rebecca, Nicole, and myself all sang “Solidarity Forever”, but with altered lyrics that emphasize the struggles of women, at the rally too.

"The Past Two Weeks Have Completely Changed My Life": On the Frontlines of the Wisconsin Struggle with Colin

What has been the atmosphere of Madison over the last several days?

Colin: On Saturday, the crowd was the largest that I’ve seen yet. The energy was really high and it was incredible to see. The conservative estimate was 70,000 people, while Democracy Now reported 100,000 people. It was incredible to see that many people braving the cold and I can assure you that it was cold. It was incredible to see all the different unions represented in that crowd, from steelworkers to teachers to firefighters, electricians, nurses, police officers, AFSCME, the Teamsters. Teamsters from Milwaukee have sent two trucks. Many signs showed that they were private workers, non-unionized, but that they supported unions generally.

On Sunday, I didn’t make it out to the Capitol until 3pm. I went at that time because I had heard that they were going to start taking out people at 4pm. I went to act as a witness in the event of civil disobedience. There were a few hundred people around the Capitol. There were a number of people there. The cops were only letting people in one entrance. People were chanting, “Whose house, our house.” Inside the Capitol, the police asked people to leave. Maybe 100 people decided to leave voluntarily. We formed a corridor at the door leading out of the Capitol. Those leaving were applauded.

After that group of people left willingly, we went to a different exit and formed a second corridor. As a I understand it, there were three groups of people in Capitol: people who volunteered to leave, people who were willing to be arrested and then leave, and then a third group who were going to refuse to move and get arrested. I was expecting people who were going to get arrested to come out, but they never did. Word came out that the police were not going to arrest anybody.

Today [Monday], everybody thought that the Capitol was going to open at regular hours and new people were going to go in. That way, the people inside could rest, and the occupation would continue. But in the morning, word started circulating that Governor Walker has put pressure on Capitol police to clear the Capitol by Tuesday when he will release a new budget with massive cuts. He doesn’t want protesters in the Capitol for that speech. The Capitol police seem unwilling to arrest the protesters inside the Capitol. In some way that has denied the occupation protesters the media coverage a mass civil disobedience arrest would bring. These protesters are sleep deprived, hungry, and haven’t had a shower in a while. If they slowly leave without being arrested, the police will have cleared the Capitol and denied the occupiers the media spectacle of a mass arrest for civil disobedience. That would be a loss for us, I think. But I have also heard rumors that supplies are being smuggled in.

How have undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison been involved in the protests?

My impression is that the undergraduates are for the most part unclear on what is going on. There are some undergrads who are enthusiastic protesters, who are organizing walk-outs and going to protests regularly. The majority of the undergrads, however, don’t seem to understand their relationship to what is going on at the Capitol right now. When I have talked to some undergrads, they tend to speak of the bill as an interesting event that is currently taking place, but that is outside of their lives. Many have not gone to the Capitol at all.

The TAA (Teaching Assistants’ Association) has been at the front of what’s been happening from the beginning. The TAs have, for the most part, attended the protests regularly and are really committing to supporting the union [movement]. I suspect that support among grad students in the sciences is significantly less. And that has everything to do with material conditions for graduate students in the sciences vis-à-vis the humanities. The TAA was one of the principal groups starting the occupation and they were one the major supporters of the legislative committee hearings. They convened hearings even when the bill passed through the State Assembly and that was one of the reasons the occupation started, in order to keep the hearings going. There are still TAs in the Capitol right now [Monday night].

The strike of 2004 is still in the collective memory of the TAA graduate union. They recognize that their tuition remission, health care, and wages depend on the existence of their union. The connection between the budget repair bill and their lives is direct. The bill would effectively eliminate the TAA, in advance of big cuts to public education. Many undergrads do not realize yet that the new Badger Partnership will raise tuition. I’m not alone in feeling that the average undergraduate these days is lacking in historical consciousness. I’ve met very smart undergraduates, but the average undergrad probably knows next to nothing about the history of labor.

I’ve heard that the faculty voted for and received the right to unionize in 2009 and nothing has come of that. That is in part because it is hard to get individual faculty to agree on anything. Most of the faculty has been very supportive of the TAA. Many faculty members have been present at the protests and at least one time they marched with the undergraduates during a walkout, carrying banners saying that we support unions.

What has been the morale and mood of the demonstrators recently?

The morale was very high on Saturday on Sunday. Today [Monday], people do not know what to think because it is unclear what is going to happen at the Capitol. People also seem to be preparing to protest for a long time. In the first two weeks, everyone dropped everything to protest as much as possible. Now, everybody is trying to figure out how to go back to living their lives while still protesting as much as they can.

No matter what happens, the protests that have already occurred have radicalized many, many people and enabled more people to see that they can accomplish things through collective action. This may be an optimistic spin on things, but the past two weeks have completely changed my life and I don’t think that I’m alone. And I’ve talked to people who were involved in the anti-war protests of the 1960s/1970s. They say the demonstrations of the scale of the past two weeks are the type of political activity that have provided solace during a time of general quiescence. Nothing can take away what has happened during the past two weeks. This could be the dawn of a new era for the Left in the U.S. It could also be the last glimmer of light before night falls on an era of unmitigated reaction. I’m not sure we’ll be able to tell whether this was the dawn of a new left/labor movement or its death for years. It is hard to assess what will happen and harder to assess what has already happened.

It seems like one of Gov. Walker’s critical errors was not taking into account the power of the mythology of the 1960s in Madison. The struggle has become about the identity of Madison and Wisconsin. There are a number of activists from the 1960s that have been keeping the ideas and tactics alive. I’ll give one anecdotal example. It is clear that many are protesting for the first time. First-time protesters didn’t know what to chant. In another city, people might not know what to do. But here, the seasoned activists can own the megaphone and get people to chant. One thing that has been really moving is watching Madison people learning the song “Solidarity Forever”. Now, sometimes, the crowd spontaneously sings “Solidarity Forever”. In the last few days, the song, “Which Side Are On”, which is a much more aggressive song, has emerged in the protests.

Dispatches from the Class War in Wisconsin - Adam's Story

What does organizing on the ground look like?

Adam: We have been having regular Solidarity meetings, which are the best meetings I have ever attended. We have been asking ourselves what we are trying to do and how we can radicalize the agenda and talking points. Obviously a lot of union leaders and people in general are ready to give concessions right away, but we are trying to say Scott Walker gave tax breaks to businesses and now they are trying to give the debt onto the people, and stressing the point that we shouldn’t be so willing to give in concessions.

People clustered with signs have made themselves at home. There are so many unaffiliated people, and they have committed themselves to the struggle. Coordinating between groups and unaffiliated people is crucial, and coordination between groups is starting to happen. Everyone was surprised at how well we have been holding down the capitol and now we are starting to really dig in. The energy could have waned, but we are seeing that this is more sustainable.

Theresa and I organized an open forum in the middle of the capitol with folks that were spending the night at the Capitol. We discussed such topics as why we were there, what are our demands are, and what are the interactions with the police. Medea Benjamin — one of the founders of Code Pink — just got back from Egypt, and she told us her story of the community that developed in the process during the struggle in Tahrir Square. This was perfect timing for Medea to say this because that kind of culture is developing in Madison. People are remarkable. I have been an activist in Wisconsin since I was 14 — that’s around 9-10 years — and I have never seen anything remotely like this.

During the anti-war rallies, you went home after a few hours; it wasn’t sustainable. Being at the capitol at night, having political discussions, and seeing people with kids, people playing instruments or break dancing is a completely different experience. It is becoming more cogent. People are expecting these things now. We have an information center, food donation areas (food is available all the time!), lost and found, massage services and other stress reducing spots. There is a real community that has been forged through these events.

Tessa and I have been attending meetings about civil disobedience: What would that look like? What would that entail? We don’t know when that will happen — or if that will happen — but we need to have infrastructure ready as well as getting different people on the same page. Because direct action can be powerful or useless, we found that is it important for different groups to be asking these questions and communicating with one another. There is legal aid everywhere. ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild have been giving out information about our rights.

Whenever the police have a chance to close down the Capitol, they will do it. We need to negotiate with the police because we don’t want a confrontation, but we don’t want to be pushed out either. People power is our leverage. We need to keep our numbers strong, and keep workers and families there. That is very important. Saturday was very thin, we were nervous. We thought we may get pushed out. Police have already taken over portions of the capitol. We discussed how we need to have a crowd that is both large and diverse. On Monday night, about a hundred Firefighters with families stayed the night at the Capitol; last night many community members stayed there. That is VERY important.

What are some of the changes you have seen this week?

The fear we all had was that energy would wane this week, but that has not happened. In fact, this week we have taken a crucial step towards a sustainable movement. Last week there was an upsurge of energy that peaked Saturday so this week we thought this would be a bad week but on Monday 15,000 to 20,000 people came out. Tom Morello (of Nightwatchman and Rage Against the Machine fame) played, and the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) president was there.

It’s important to note that not only the public sector workers, but private sector workers are also showing up. We thought that because Monday was a furlough day, that is why we had the numbers but yesterday we had 10,000 people and more people stayed the night at the Capitol than last week. The energy is still alive. Staying at the Capitol, you just get taken away with the people. Time flies while you are talking, laughing and sharing food with each other. I had this great conversation with this woman about the time when they occupied the Capitol in the 1980s to protest apartheid in South Africa. I never knew that had happened in Madison. It is becoming an organizing space and a new generation of activists is being forged.

The rally in Ohio and Indiana‘s Democrats fleeing the state is heartening to Wisconsinites. Maybe a new workers’ movement is beginning. We could have something new on our hands. South Central Federation of Labor endorsed a general strike. They backed off the language after, but the fact that THOSE words came out is ridiculous in a good way. This is a new feeling.

We are getting creative in strategizing. We are not only focusing on the Capitol, but we are also targeting Scott Walker. We are protesting the M & I bank that gave him a lot of money. Today, I am going to protest the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), a business lobby and one of Walker’s biggest donors. Walker was planning on announcing the budget there – which is unprecedented – but the announcement is postponed. Obviously, this shows which side he is on. Tomorrow we are protesting the Koch Brothers lobbying office. We are keeping the energy alive by organizing a lot. Students are also riding on this high energy by planning protests against the privatization of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dispatches from the class struggle in Wisconsin: Interviews with two Wisconsin Solidarity members

First Interview:

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.

Second Interview:

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.