Battle for Wisconsin, Part II

Posted February 19, 2011

Another update from Andrew in Madison.

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Thursday night ended with lots of energy and momentum as Democratic senators fled the state to break quorum and block a vote, and Friday seems to be a difficult and contradictory day. Public schools remain closed and thousands of UW students walked out today to join workers at the capitol, so there remains important grassroots energy but the situation is changing quickly.

Major establishment leaders have taken to Madison, with a visit today from Trumpka and Jesse Jackson. Where until now there was a remarkable absence of bureaucratic control, Democrats, the AFL-CIO and WEAC have all jumped in suddenly. SEIU is sending a team of international staff organizers to take over operations at the capitol. Trumpka of course gave a rah rah speech this morning, and to say nothing about the obvious flaws with the AFL-CIO playbook and language of the “middle class”, the atmosphere has shifted from solidarity detachments of local unions networking, organizing bottom-up by bullhorn and passing messages to major sound-system rallies with prominent speakers calling the shots. Much more troubling is the relationship between Trumpka and the TAA (graduate student AFT affiliate), as Trumpka came to personally address the TAA who have erected a semi-permanent office in the capitol building. Throughout the week the TAA has been trying to keep to a strict lobbying strategy and have disapproved of sit-ins and other militant demonstrations, but with Trumpka’s arrival TAA leaders seem much more arrogant in their belief that they command activity and information inside the capitol; while most union members have been out conversing and talking about what’s next, they’ve mostly been holed up in their private office and have reserved a number of rooms that remain empty. Word is that TAA leaders already see this thing as a lose and are acting accordingly.

Democrats obviously made an excellent move fleeing the state to block the senate vote, but they’re taking all the credit for resistance to attacks and today they’re trying to scoop the movement into their party with chants like, “We Want Russ!” (Feingold), mass distributions of signs targeting Republicans and posting pictures of Democratic legislators in the capitol with slogans proclaiming their respect for workers. Of course, the reason we’re in this mess to begin with is because the Democratic majority legislature stalled unions and ultimately voted down state contracts in Decembers, obviously setting up Walker to complete the pass.

So as the labor bureaucracy and the Democrats step in to take over the movement internally, the state is also getting firmer. Until yesterday, it seemed as though there were more plain clothed police holding signs that read “Cops 4 Labor Rights” than actual uniformed cops on the street policing, but today dozens of state troopers are stationed in the capitol and they’ve blocked off the entrance to the Assembly and Senate rooms as they anticipate more sit-ins and/or anger over a potential vote on the bill. Remarkably, there has not been any violence nor any arrests to date.

But be that as it may, when the major AFL-CIO scheduled rallies conclude the grassroots energy remains. Life inside the capitol is very rowdy and a trend has taken over to plaster all the walls with hand drawn posters brought out for protests; its spectacular. Banners from the top floors all hang listing cities that have said they’re in solidarity with us in Madison: Boston, San Francisco, Columbus, Chicago–and more keep coming. Union members wearing jackets, hats and t-shirts with their local number on it are regularly thanked and held up as the heroes here. Madison Teachers Inc (MTI, local union) has taken up petitions to begin a recall of governor Walker. Some of us had an idea to solicit area businesses and tell them that if they didn’t have a sign in their window saying they support workers that we’d make sure their business wasn’t patronized–literally minutes later a group of teachers started talking about how no one should solicit businesses without union support signs. Close to 6pm Jesse Jackson began his speech that captured the sentiment here, “Wisconsin is the Superbowl of Workers’ Rights.” Well said. Jackson continued by pointing to struggles across the globe and talking about the history of struggle for public unions and the connection to civil rights, leading to a chant “When we fight, we win!” and then “Workers’ rights are human rights!”

News on the bill is that Assembly Republicans, who, unlike the Senate, do have quorum, were momentarily successful in a motion to have the bill be un-amendable, though that was turned around shortly thereafter. By early evening, they announced that the Assembly will adjourn until Tuesday, the same day that Walker is due to unveil his state budget.

The sense now is that the struggle is at a kind of stalemate. Walker and the legislature are stalling out the workers hoping to break them with time and discouragement and to also let the labor bureaucracy destabilize solidarities on the inside as the state starts to clamp down–Mayor Dave here in Madison sued MTI for their sick-outs and attempted to get an injunction, but was denied by a judge. Tomorrow a Tea Party counter-rally has also been called.

On the workers’ side more allies are finding their way to the demonstrations: MadWorC, the Madison Worker Cooperative association, is rallying their member cooperatives in support and will drive a line of cooperative taxis in a parade up in support. Thursday evening saw some municipal rebellions as cities, towns and districts tried to ram through contracts in anticipation of the bill. Reports of similar worker-student rallies in Ohio have also given workers here the cue that they’re doing what they should be doing. Its become well known that the budget deficit the bill says its out to fix was actually created by Walker, and the sense of injustice is carrying commitment to kill the bill. Walker inherited a surplus of about $120 million, which he promptly gave away to corporations and the rich as tax cuts, and now says that union-busting is the solution for the resulting manufactured deficit. Maybe most importantly, there are rumors of a strike of support staff at the university on Tuesday.

I really don’t think that the Tea Party is anything to worry about–their usual strengths are in demonstrating some kind of anger over the way things are going and grabbing white people who are angry there isn’t a fight going on while things are getting so horrible. They say they’re bringing cleaning supplies to restore the capitol from the “dirty hippies”, so they’re not gonna make any friends among the workers here. The bigger issue is going to be the cadre of international staffers and Democratic party feeders, who are already disturbing the alliance of workers who have without the capitalist parties. And even if our solidarity carries and we deflect the internal challenges, the sense of “real time” is coming back and fighting with “movement time”–that is to say that the pressures of everyday life are weighing down, there’s no imminent bill that could pass at any second as there has been for the last three days and probably many teachers will go back to work Monday.

But its too early to call and every day has had some kind of surprise that has pushed and taken this to another level. Just thinking about it from the perspective of the legislators, they’ve got to be making a calculation about whether its more important to make some concessions, secure workplaces and allow a victory for workers, which gives us all confidence to do more, or if its better to pass the bill, risk more militant resistance and try to smash the movement. Either way, we should look to what a symbol this has been for the entire country and the pride people have in their unions right now isn’t just going to go away if this thing passes.