Report from the Battle for Wisconsin

Posted February 18, 2011

This is a report from a Madison comrade, Andrew, who has been heavily involved with the protests there. He makes great observations on the culture of the protests, how such movements are organized, contradictions between the labor bureaucracy and rank-and-file workers, and all kinds of other stuff you definitely won’t learn about in the mainstream media. This was written late Thursday, February 17.

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First, I think we’re all shocked at what’s happening here. There’s obviously been a build-up to this point, a few test battles in union-busting public sector workers and of course the (democratic) legislature stalling out and then rejecting state contracts, but the pace at which things have proceeded this week is mindblowing. Walker introduced the bill on Friday with intent to get it passed Wednesday, which pissed people off even more than the contents of the bill already had.

Second, protests have definitely gone above and beyond what union leadership had planned. Monday’s action was called by the graduate student union (TAA) to deliver valentines to the governor, “I love my university, don’t break my heart”, followed by a strict lobbying plan. The day then kind of fizzled. Tuesday was intended to be the same but bigger, but things blew up when firefighters showed up despite being exempt from the cuts and high school students walked out of class as well. Then there was a community forum that encouraged militancy, and as rallies kept the capitol packed throughout the night, students and workers somewhat spontaneously decided to sleep in at the capitol and keep public testimonies going all night long. The TAA initially was against it because they want to appear as good partners to make things work, but have since embraced it and then called for another sleep-in the following night. Madison Teachers soft struck by sicking-out on Wednesday, though not an official union action, and it forced school closures in the city; shortly after WEAC (NEA affiliate for Wisconsin teachers) announced Wisconsin teachers would not show up to work Thursday and Friday to be part of demonstrations.

The union bureaucracy has been lagging behind workers here. The number of handmade signs are roughly equal to mass produced placards, with all kinds of witty takes on pop culture and Wisconsin traditions, but the actions workers are taking are definitely directing how things are shaping up here. The official program of speakers were the same two days in a row—which I think says that unions were expecting a different crowd of people to come for lobbying either day. In their meeting this morning, the AFL-CIO were prepared for a loss, but the mood of workers here is increasingly confident as private sector unions and skilled trades have stuck it out for the last few days. Now it seems like unions are ready to invest in this fight; presidents of the internationals of the NEA and AFSCME were in town today, and its rumored that Trumka and Jesse Jackson will be here tomorrow.

The mood is increasingly confident and the sense of solidarity here is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Madison feels radically different and working class issues have hegemony for the moment–a few examples: two plumbers in the bathroom talking to each other, “This isn’t about parties, its about the working class,”; walking downtown people all over are watching tv reports in the streets and discussing what this means for working people while cars honk approvingly at AFSCME members crossing the walk. Firefighters in uniform led demonstrators by bagpipe to a municipal building to get support for a motion to ratify municipal contracts now should the bill pass; they were cheered the whole way through. At the capitol tonight, workers chanted “We are Wisconsin!” and “Union!”, and to me they’re speaking about the kind of unionism represented by the solidarity in the room, not just collective bargaining. Signs are everywhere in support of the public unions, and businesses that want solicitation have all catered to workers in one way or another. Even emails from liberal-progressive groups I get daily are taking a very different turn, coming out strongly for workers and looking for ways to empower the unions. WORT, the community station, has been covering the bill and the protests around the clock, airing testimonies of workers and most all of their music is labor or struggle themed.

Lastly, things are getting more militant day by day. Monday was sleepier, Tuesday was people finding each other and feeling it out, bolstered by students and firefighters, Wednesday more support (now from cops, too!) and experimentation and today chants are turning to calls for Walker’s removal, direct action and no compromises (“Kill the bill!”). Since legislators have fled the state and broken quorum, there is a little more wiggle room to plan something and we’re hoping to build confidence to keep things going and encourage strikes or other job actions if the bill makes it through—my sense is that workers are livid and they want this thing dead, period. Wednesday night there was an exchange outside the finance committee where someone came out to silence the chanting, “Be quiet so we can amend this thing for you,” which was countered with, “We don’t want an amendment, kill the bill!”

So that’s the gist of it. Who knows if we’ve hit the peak or if tonight’s sleep-in will have more networking among unionists, students and other workers that will lead to more militancy.


3 responses to “Report from the Battle for Wisconsin”

  1. Andrew Avatar

    Starting Friday but mostly Saturday there really has been a huge convergence on Wisconsin. A lot are union bureaucrats and Democrats, naturally, but folks have been making their way from New York, Michigan and California, all states with similar bills proposed, because they know what’s at stake here.

    We’re at a contradictory point. The level of struggle is in itself a win and Wisconsin has become a kind of symbol for working folks in the US about what a fight back is and should be. Its also a win in terms of the grassroots solidarities that have been forged–the pride in unions and collective power is unshakable. But undoubtedly, we need THE win: the bill must die and we have to kill it. What happens in Wisconsin is going to happen to the rest of the country.

    If they only take out collective bargaining, the majority of working people who don’t belong to unions will feel like they don’t have a chance. For the sake of the workers’ movement, not just the trade union movement, we have to win. And in a sense we’re lucky because the Republicans also know that they need a win here to push through austerity like this–they’re inflexible, so rather than bending they’ll have to break.

    Of course you’re right, we need a contingency plan. But considering how many contingencies there are, all we can do is pay attention and be ready to respond to any number of possible outcomes.

  2. David Carter Avatar
    David Carter

    Here in Cambridge GB we are being peddled the same rubbish the working class the world over is being asked to swallow. But just like you say, Andrew, the response has been fantastic as people unite and start thinking about the loss of amenities and services to the people. It’s not just their own jobs they are concerned with but also the effects on the poorest and most vulnerable. Because that’s where it’s all heading.

    We have many groups formed to protect such services as libraries (they say we should run them with volunteers), youth services, health provision, and we had a recent government U-turn over selling off forests and woodlands to the private sector. Provision for those with special educational needs was the first to be hit this year, and the setting of local council budgets (in response to slashed funds from central government) is dominating events, with local services that affect the most vulnerable being hit hardest. We are fighting back as hard as we can, here under the umbrella of Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts, with marches and protests. This was kick-started just before Christmas with students occupying the oldest part of Cambridge University for over a week to force the university to officially oppose raising tuition fees to 9K per annum. Their actions were a real inspiration. Alongside this we still have overt attempts to privatise our health services and schools. Not so long ago we had Thatcher telling us “there is no such thing as society”. Then we had Blair doing a damned good imitation of Thatcher, tailoring all his policies to keep the middle classes voting his way and doing gentle violence towards the poorest, with the gap increasing dramatically between the haves and have-nots. But right now people who were slumbering are starting to rediscover what society really means, and current events are seeing people re-assess what’s important. Politically it will be an interesting and exciting time.

    love and solidarity to y’all


  3. Buckeye Red Avatar
    Buckeye Red

    Here in Ohio we are inspired by events in Wisconsin. And the analysis from Solidarity folks on the ground has been really helpful. We are facing a similar situation, with people beginning to mobilize in new ways. But the legislative balance of power is decisively against us. Events in Wisconsin suggest that some kind of legislative victory is not out of the question, but it will be tough to achieve, and perhaps even tougher in Ohio. So, without spreading any kind of defeatism we need to think about Plan B. A national convergence on Wisconsin/Ohio? Planning for such an action could get underway with or without the formal support of labor officials. Think Seattle 1999. Perhaps the way to do this is to pitch it as a national convergence to resist the anti-worker/austerity agenda. If there is a victory in Wisconsin then a national rally there could mark that victory and symbolize the determination to keep going.