Workers draw the line in Wisconsin

Aongus Ó Murchadha reports from Wisconsin on the resistance to an anti-labor attack.

Some 20,000 people rallied against Gov. Scott Walker's sweeping attacks on unions and workers' living standards (Emily Mills)Some 20,000 people rallied against Gov. Scott Walker's sweeping attacks on unions and workers' living standards (Emily Mills)

WISCONSIN SAW its biggest labor rally in memory Tuesday as an angry crowd estimated at as many as 20,000 turned out to oppose Republican Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to gut public-sector unions of their bargaining power, break them financially and force workers to pay for the state budget deficit.

The rally--one of several labor protests scheduled for the state capital of Madison--was intended to build momentum for an even bigger labor demonstration set for the following day.

Mike Imbrogno, a shop steward in American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSMCE) Local 171, described how union members surged inside the capital building, chanting their demands:

What you can do

Wisconsin activists have suggestions for people who would like to support the struggle, but can't get to Madison:

-- Send a donation via PayPal to ewrigleyfield@gmail.com. The money will go to supplies for banners and other materials we need and don't have any money for.

-- If you have connections with a group that should be offering solidarity, but isn't yet, please contact them. From statements of solidarity (paper or video) to rallies to money, we want it. Think broad: the bill kicks undocumented children off BadgerCare (health care); it threatens domestic partnerships, won through non-wages collective bargaining; it will destroy public transit in Madison (which is an environmental issue, as well as a class issue).

-- For information about further activism and updates on the situation in Madison, visit International Socialist Organization Madison Web site.

I've never seen anything like it. It wasn't just teachers and union members from the University of Wisconsin (UW), where I work. There were Steelworkers, Teamsters, Pipefitters, building trades unions and more--unions I've never seen at a rally in 10 years.

The most amazing thing is when the firefighters came in a delegation. Along with police, Walker has exempted firefighters from the legislation--but they came with signs that said, "Firefighters for workers' rights." People were crying.

The signs people made were great. Many of them referred to Egypt: "Mubarak-check. Walker--?" and "Hosni Walker, Elected Dictator." There was a woman in her late 50s with a sign that said, "Walk Like an Egyptian." Another read: "I was sent to Iraq to get rid of a dictator, and I won't tolerate one here."

The mood was angry, but also optimistic--almost jubilant. More than one person said to me, "The whole country is looking at us now. If this happens here, it will go everywhere else."

Following the rally, there was a panel discussion of activists that drew about 120 people. There were a number of high school students from immigrant families who spoke. They said they were there to support the unions, because they saw unions as helping their parents and being key to their livelihood. So they said, "We will walk out tomorrow." The people in the room who were in their 50s, who've been in union struggles since the '70s, responded like mad. There's some knitting together of common class interest on a scale that indicates something to come.

After the protests, union members signed up to testify before the legislative committee that is holding hearings on the bill prior to the vote. The UW graduate employees union, the Teaching Assistants' Association, planned to keep testifying all night, which legally compels legislators to remain in session.

But Walker is sticking to his hard line. Elected as part of sweeping Republican victories in November as a result of low turnout and disillusionment with Barack Obama and the Democrats nationally, Walker is confident enough to take on every single public-sector union at once, demanding not only that workers pay more for their health care and pensions, but that any demand not related to wages alone be taken off the negotiating table, that unions be forced to recertify every year, and that automatic dues deductions ended.

What's more, Walker has informed the Wisconsin State Employees Union, an AFSCME affiliate, that on March 13 the state would cancel contract extensions for five union bargaining units that had been in place before the old contract expired in mid-2009.

And for good measure, Walker ordered the Wisconsin National Guard to prepare to intervene in case of any strike action by unions.

In short, Walker wants the destruction of organized labor in Wisconsin.

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WHILE UNIONISTS knew that Walker was their sworn enemy, the full extent of his assault wasn't known until February 10, when his so-called "budget repair bill" was released. In an unprecedented move, this bill is due to come up for a vote on February 17, with almost no debate.

As a result, Wisconsin's unions, which had been expecting more time to ramp up opposition to whatever Walker would propose, have been forced into immediate action.

Walker's statement that the National Guard would be called out merely added fuel to the fire. While ostensibly it was to take over government functions in the potential absence of state workers, the gesture was widely interpreted as a deliberate provocation, especially since the first major protests were not to be held until four days later.

Comparisons with Egypt were not slow in coming. Walker's rush through this legislation is widely perceived as profoundly undemocratic, and the addition of the military to a political and economic conflict has solidified the image of "Hosni Walker" in the mind of a large number of Wisconsinites.

Walker's image wasn't helped on February 14 by the revelation of a dirty-tricks campaign. The state legislature's Joint Finance Committee had scheduled a public hearing for the following morning to discuss the impending budget bill. But notice of the hearing wasn't published online and was unknown to organized labor. However, two right-wing groups, the Club For Growth and Americans For Prosperity, knew all about the hearing--and paid for buses to bring their supporters to Madison.

The response to Walker's assault has been dramatic. Even before the big February 15 rally, actions broke out across the state. In Madison alone, an estimated 100 people picketed the governor's mansion on Sunday morning after one person put up leaflets at a supermarket and called some friends. A protest at the capitol drew about the same number that afternoon.

On Valentine's Day, the UW-Madison teaching assistants' union, the TAA, drew an estimated 1,000 TAs and students to a march on the Capitol to deliver the governor valentines urging him not to cut education spending. This event, planned a month in advance as a way to start bringing students and teaching assistants into activity with the union and draw attention to the governor's impending but then-unknown budget, quickly became a major event. Activists crowded the interior of the Capitol with supporters shouting, "Kill the Bill!"

So even before thousands of union members rolled into town, Walker's agenda had planted the seed for a united opposition to austerity measures that will not end with this current bill.

Union leaders have been confident in public about getting the necessary three votes from supposedly wavering Republicans in the state Senate to stop Walker's legislation. But even if the bill is defeated, it's already clear that its provisions will return, piece by piece. In that case, an ongoing, coordinated grassroots effort will be necessary to block the measures.

No one knows what the next few days will bring. One thing is certain, however. Labor in Wisconsin is in the fight of its life, and all union activists and supporters across the country should have no doubt that they will face the same fight sooner or later. For large numbers of people, these attacks are the final straw--and they are being pushed into action. By joining and fighting alongside them, we can win.