Battle for Wisconsin, Part Four: Battle Plans

Posted February 21, 2011

We’re into the fifth day now and its starting to take its toll–I’m pretty worn so hopefully this report is holding the standard. The capitol square has temporarily depopulated to the point that it almost looks like a normal business day–of course its Sunday and most people don’t do business with KILL THE BILL placards and “I am MTI” pins. The local newspapers are saying that the small turnout today is because of the bad weather (it’s grossly cold and wet) and that shows the resolve of protesters here. But people have been here days and nights and since there’s no imminent threat its a good time to go home, take care of yourself and get ready for the next day. Some are leaving Madison, back to the rest of Wisconsin for life, work or until the next round, so allies from around the country have come to take their places and keep a presence. And even though things seem pretty mellow, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

Union locals are meeting today to figure out what their game plan is. WEAC’s done a full 360: two weeks ago they agreed to the worst concessions for Wisconsin teachers, only to cancel school last Thursday and Friday to get teachers here, and now they’re back to their usual shenanigans as President Mary Bell ordered teachers who aren’t excused for President’s Day back to work. AFSCME local 171 and 2412 had small attendance at their joint meeting (70 people out of 1000) and voted to endorse Council 24 Executive Director Marty Beil’s concession to have public workers contribute to their pensions and take a serious paycut–all that after his threats to call strikes for his public workers just a few months ago. MTI is in for at least another day, having called off school for Monday before they return on Tuesday. Taking their place, the IBEW International President Ed Hill will be here Tuesday and has called for electricians to come out in their hardhats. The Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association (police union) is having internal issues and Tuesday they’ll decide who’s side they’re on.

A concert has been planned for Monday to rejuvenate the workers as they turn out on their Furlough Day, and Tom Morello and a few other left-ish musicians are playing a set billed “The Battle of Wisconsin” (nice name). In response, the Democratic Party has organized a competing event, a fundraiser for the fourteen senators in Rockford. They’ve named their recital “The Concessions Concert”. I think that show’s what’s on their minds. On that subject, its worth mentioning that Walker and the Legislature really don’t want to make any concessions–there hasn’t been a single report of a political change up inside the legislature. Just as the movement knows they’re making history, Walker knows that he’s going to make history if he gets this thing through and that he’ll be the toast of the town. Someone asked about the Recall petitions, but they’ve been drowned in a sea of “Russ for Guv” signs and 2012 election briefs. The Democrats probably would rather not have people feel like they have collective power over the political process, so no recall from them.

While we’re waiting for the next fight, its important to point out the strengths of the workers’ position here. First, Madison schools will have been closed down for four days Monday with their sick-strikes. That’s huge. They’ve stopped business as usual, forced the district to respond and come out on top; Mayor Dave’s injunction was thrown out of court. MTI also did some groundwork to open childcare centers for children in need while schools have been out. The local press is running spots on the community’s disapproval, which I can’t get a read on, but this whole week I’ve seen more kids with “Union Power!” signs than I can even count–the recall petition I signed Friday was held by a nine-year old with freckles.

The second strength is that the state government is incapacitated. With fourteen senators still out of the state, its not just the Budget Repair bill that’s not going to move–legislation can’t proceed as normal. The State Assembly didn’t do any business except for hearings on the bill from Tuesday on, and they were eventually forced to adjourn until Tuesday. So while we tend to look to strikes as the sole source of power, we have hit some kind of soft spot.

But what’s the strategy here? How are we going to manage a win? No one has come out to really say this, but I think that militants on the ground and the union bureaucracy agree that there’s a dual focus. We need to have control inside the capitol to block the legislature and stop movement on the bill itself, and we need to be out in the field with the rank and file since they’re the only ones who can secure the win. The AFL-CIO, WEAC and SEIU have rented out at least five suites in the Concourse Hotel to coordinate labor activity outside the capitol: meeting with politicians, figuring out where to send their army of staffers, arranging rallies, and mass producing approved placards. Their job is to convince the rank and file that they can’t win this and should accept concessions that will keep their unions together and let the rest of the bill pass. Naturally, our mission is to make sure that doesn’t happen and to give workers the confidence to stick to the demands they were making on Thursday: the whole thing has got to die and we need to kill it. Inside the capitol, the TAA leadership is working with police to try to “keep things civil”, and they’re doing their redirects to activists on the ground–throwing people into phone-banking and using cleaning supplies to tidy up the building. More than a few TAA members have left their battle room in frustration and are looking to activists on the floor for direction.

Rumors come every night that the police are going to force people out–they’ve blocked more hallways and increased police presence inside. Saturday night/Sunday morning they had a squad of riot cops outside the entrance doors to the building. They’re also starting intimidation tactics and counting as well as tearing down peoples’ banners. At one point in the night, some AFSCME workers saw police tearing down their signs and demanded that they put them right back up, so they obviously know what it means to have these posters as signs of worker solidarity and power. Folks coming from out of town have been really taken by things inside the capitol and placed a high premium on activity inside, but keeping the capitol is only important because its much more grassroots controlled (spatially its difficult to plan an event in there), it keeps morale up and it stalls the vote. But the decider in this fight is going to be what labor does out in the field.

Monday is going to be an advance to see what direction the movement will take, concessions or no concessions, and probably most of the hot fighting is going to be Tuesday.

Forward to Tuesday! On Wisconsin!


3 responses to “Battle for Wisconsin, Part Four: Battle Plans”

  1. Bryan Koulouris Avatar
    Bryan Koulouris

    Andrew–your four reports have been so incredibly useful and informative. I’m headed, along with a few other Socialist Alternative members, to Madison starting tomorrow for the weekend.

    I would love to grab coffee if you have a few minutes. I wouldn’t normally put my number out there on the interwebs, but I won’t have internet starting in a few minutes. My # is 774-454-9060, and Jesse’s number is 617-283-9108.

  2. Andrew Avatar

    In short, its complicated and its not a simple “bureacrats bad, worker good”. The TAA did kick this thing off, and unions got people out here Tuesday, but they really didn’t mean for it to turn into this. The leadership has been clear the whole time that they’re ready to lose and they’ve only come this far because they were pushed from below.

    Obviously we wouldn’t have gotten here if they hadn’t been doing valuable legwork to turn folks out–chartering buses, getting food here, etc. So its contradictory, we needed them to get this started legitimately, but they’ve been behind the movement and tailing the action. Now they’re trying to reign it in because they don’t want to incur the cost it’ll take to win the fight. So its both–the bureaucracy turned people out and made it possible for the fight to happen, but they’re only still here because the workers pushed it way farther.

    Materially, the labor bureaucracy and Democrats want a specific win: bureaucracy wants to protect its member dues and keep their unions together. Democrats want to make sure they have labor’s money, and for that labor needs the money. Its also a huge voter turn out. And no doubt a lot of these people probably care about the cause, but not in the same way that the rank and file do.

    So I guess all I can say is its complicated and its hard to represent all the tensions, conflict, contradiction and confusion. What I want to emphasize is that the unions have changed in the course of this struggle and they’ve been willing to fight for more because of the activity. Power lies with the workers themselves.

  3. Scott-Los Angeles Avatar
    Scott-Los Angeles

    We take it as a fact of life that Democratic politicians and labor bureaucrats sell out the rank and file. However—and this is a legitimate question—I find it hard to believe that labor bureaucrats have been totally worthless. From reading what has been posted I get the sense that Democratic legislators and labor leaders took Gov. Walker’s Budget Repair Bill as a done deal and that only wildcat actions by rank and filers generated resistance initially. Is that true? I find it hard to believe that Democratic legislators and labor leaders, with the knife at their throat, facing an existential threat, did not attempt to initiate the mobilization that we have seen, that only spontaneous, wildcat rank and file action is responsible for this amazing and glorious upsurge.