Wisconsin unions turn up the heat

February 17, 2011

Lee Sustar reports from Madison on the inspiring mobilization to stop the most draconian anti-union legislation in decades from being imposed in Wisconsin.

WISCONSIN UNIONS are planning a mass rally in the state capital of Madison for the third consecutive day February 17, as part of an escalating struggle to stop Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to ram through sweeping anti-union legislation.

Union leaders urged their members--and all Wisconsin citizens--to join the planned action. At a press conference, Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell called on all 98,000 members of the teachers' union to converge on Madison, both on Thursday and Friday.

The latest rally would come a day after an estimated 30,000 workers and their supporters surrounded the Capitol. At least 20,000 people protested the day before that.

Madison public schools closed down Wednesday because teachers failed to show up for work and high school students had walked out the previous day. At least 15 school districts across the state announced that they would close on Thursday.

The February 16 rally was a raucous and defiant demonstration of working-class anger. The most visible contingent was organized by members of Madison Teachers Inc., whose sick-in forced the shutdown of the city school district.

Workers and students fill the Capitol building in Wisconsin in protest of the assault on labor
Workers and students fill the Capitol building in Wisconsin in protest of the assault on labor (Jessie Reeder)

The evening rally at 5 p.m. was bigger still, as many who stayed in the area for the midday protest returned, joined by thousands more who took part in the demonstration for the first time. Several unions were organizing members to join University of Wisconsin students and activists to stay in the Capitol overnight.

References to the revolution in Egypt were commonplace in Madison yesterday, with homemade placards comparing Walker to the deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak.

The mood of the protesters was summed up by Dane County highway worker Arlyn Halborson, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He got one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon rally when he said of Walker's proposal: "This isn't a financial decision. It's a political decision to suppress the working class and take their rights away while rewarding Corporate America."

Walker called a special session of the state legislature to push through a so-called "budget repair bill" that would force public employees to pay 12.6 percent of their health insurance costs, and contribute 5.8 percent of their paychecks toward their pension.

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 [email protected]. 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.

But the real heart of the legislation is an all-out assault on public-sector unions. Walker wants to strip unions of the right to bargain over anything but wages. The bill would also end the automatic deduction of union dues from workers' paychecks, potentially crippling unions financially. Unions would also have to re-certify their status as a bargaining unit each year, opening the way for the state to withdraw recognition from unions over time.

On top of this, Walker has told state unions that the expired contracts they have been working under won't be extended past March 13--a threat that the governor will impose his own terms or even withdraw union recognition as of that date.

THE SPIRITED rally on the Capitol steps turned into an unchallenged occupation of the state Capitol as thousands of workers streamed into the building, chanting "Kill the bill." Only a handful of state troopers were on hand to monitor the demonstration.

The protesters' march into the Capitol building was led by the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin (PFFW), an affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Although firefighters are exempted from Walker's proposed anti-union legislation, they have nevertheless mobilized members across the state to stop this union-busting attack, said PFFW President Mahlon Mitchell, who last month became the first African American to hold that office.

"We could have stayed idly back--taken a couple of steps back, and say, 'Let them fight it,'" said in a speech. "'That's their business. Let's stay out of their backyard.' But we didn't do that. Because when firefighters and police see an emergency, what do we do? We respond. And when firefighters see a burning building and everybody's running out, where do we go?" The crowd chanted in response, "In! In! In!"

"Our house is burning down, ladies and gentlemen," Mitchell continued. "And we're here to lead the charge. We're going to go in first. And if that house burns down, we will be right here beside you to help you rebuild that house," he concluded as cheers nearly drowned out his words.

Such messages of solidarity struck a chord with workers like Abe McCoy, a member of Ironworkers Local 2 in Milwaukee. He said:

Walker is just another bought-and-paid-for pawn. The money owns him, the money directs him, and the money set this bill up. You don't think they just put this together last month, do you? It's been on the shelf for a long time. They created this economic climate in which they can get it through. Now they're going to try to bust the unions and make serfs out of all of us.

As a private-sector worker, McCoy's union isn't targeted by Walker's proposals. But if the law goes through, he said, unions everywhere will be in the crosshairs next. "As soon as they get through with them, they're going to come after us, the 8 percent of us in the population"--workers in the private sector who belong to unions.

McCoy's fellow member of Local 2, Shane Bakken, made a similar point:

This bill isn't at all about a budget fix. This is simply about trying to stamp out unions and advance the corporations. If this was just about budgets, why didn't it stop at demanding concessions on benefits? Why is it going into destroying collective bargaining? Why are they talking about right-to-work? This is just about stamping out unions for profit. It's that simple.

Michelle Rue-Miller, president of AFSCME Local 3798, which represents workers in the Jefferson County courthouse, said the economic hit from Walker's health care and pension proposals would be devastating, too:

It would cause some people to lose their homes. There's no cushy retirement in Wisconsin. Yes, we have a pension plan, and it gets paid, and that's great. However, we take lower wages. We're sacrificing now so we have a future when we retire. We don't have Social Security. This is all we'll have.

But if Walker thought unions would fold under pressure, the opposite has happened, Rue-Miller said. "This won't stop today," she said of the rally. "All they've done is brought us together--they've proved what solidarity is."

It may not be surprising that veteran trade unionists like McCoy, Bakken and Rue-Miller are fighting mad at an attack on decades of organized labor's achievements in Wisconsin. But adding to the energy of the protests were thousands of high school students from in and around Madison, who came out to support their teachers and their parents.

"We are supporting our teachers and parents who are city workers and teachers," said Ali Vandelune, a student at Monona Grove High School who participated in a walkout of 200 students that joined the protest. She rejected the idea that young people aren't interested in unions. What happens to organized labor, she said, "affects us, because this is affecting our parents."

When the midday rally swarmed into the Capitol building, it was a multiracial group of high school students who took the lead in jamming the hallway to Walker's office door, chanting, "Come out Walker!" and "Walker, escucha, estamos en la lucha" (Listen, Walker, we're in the fight)--adapting a chant widely used in the immigrant rights movement in recent years.

The diversity on display was proudly noted by many protesters. "One point I think deserves to be emphasized is how demographically broad everything is," said Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin and member of the graduate employees union, the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA).

TAA members stayed in a Capitol hearing room all night February 15 in an effort to keep legislative hearings going and block progress on Walker's bill. "It was amazing being in the Capitol after midnight last night with not only dozens of students, but also dozens of union workers from around the state who were going to stay as late as it took to get their two minutes of speaking time," Wrigley-Field said. "The testimony was absolutely riveting. Then, of course, today, we had the incredible high school students from Milwaukee, Racine and everywhere."

And when news came of an attempt to ram through the law in a midnight session, the TAA again mobilized to camp out in the state Capitol building overnight.

PUBLIC-SECTOR union leaders have little choice but to take a stand--Walker's proposals could literally bust their unions. And if Walker's utter hostility to labor wasn't clear enough, the governor also announced on February 11 that he would ask the National Guard to make contingency plans in case of strikes by public-sector workers.

Several labor officials who addressed the rally focused on a simple demand--that Walker sit down and talk to unions, rather than try to steamroller them. Brad Lutes, a member of a local affiliate of the Wisconsin Education Association and an elementary physical education and health teacher in Sun Prairie, near Madison, led the crowd in chants of "negotiate, not legislate."

Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt also said in an interview that labor's objective with the protest was to pressure Walker to negotiate. Earlier, speaking to the thousands of union members and supporters, Neuenfeldt sounded the basic theme of solidarity that motivated workers to turn out from across the state.

Those appeals to working-class unity got the loudest cheers of the day. "In Wisconsin, we've come together," Neuenfeldt said. "Members of the public sector, members of the industrial sector, members of the building trades, health care. All aspects of the economy are coming together. And why? Because this is Wisconsin, and our history runs deeps. We understand in Wisconsin that when you do an injury to one," he said, pausing as the crowd joined him in completing the old labor motto, "you do an injury to all."

Those sentiments were shared by Yolanda Pillsbury, a production worker at the John Deere plant in Horicon, Wis., and member of International Association of Machinists Local Lodge 873.

"If this goes to the private sector, we will lose our bargaining rights, benefits and won't be able to bargain collectively," she said. "I have only worked at John Deere for 13 years, but I have been a union member for 30. It hurts us greatly if we don't have a voice--our collective bargaining."

It's still possible that labor's lobbyists could peel off enough Republican votes in the state senate to stop Walker's plan. But if the union-busting law does go through, a number of workers on the demonstration said they're prepared to up the ante with further action.

As one high school student protester's sign put it, "Class, meet your new teacher--the National Guard."

Whoever wins this round, it's clear that labor's battle with Walker--the "Mubarak of the Midwest," as one protester's button put it--will continue.

And this struggle has also shed light on the growing frustration and anger of working people as U.S. politics veers to the right in a bipartisan austerity campaign. If anyone thinks the Tea Party doctrine of budget-slashing and union-busting holds sway in Middle America, they should take a closer look at the diverse, multi-generational crowd that mobilized on a few days' notice to take a stand for workers rights.

It's an example that union members--and all working people--should follow.

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