Class war in Wisconsin

Lee Sustar reports from Madison on the growing union struggle against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his attempt to crush public-sector unions.

Workers and students filled the Wisconsin capitol building for another day of protest against Gov. Scott Walker's anti-labor bill (Peter Gorman)Workers and students filled the Wisconsin capitol building for another day of protest against Gov. Scott Walker's anti-labor bill (Peter Gorman)

WISCONSIN LABOR was gearing up for its fourth consecutive daily rally--and biggest yet--February 18 after sit-ins by workers and students and stalling tactics by state senate Democrats stopped a vote on devastating anti-union legislation pushed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

It was difficult to estimate the size of the protest on Thursday, February 17, but it was clearly larger than previous protests, which began with a 20,000-person demonstration on Tuesday, and a 30,000-strong protest the following day.

The numbers on Thursday were swelled by thousands of teachers--members of the Wisconsin Education Association Council who followed their union leaders' call to skip work and join the protest. Numerous school districts around the state decided to shut down altogether on February 17 and 18 as a result.

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.

The Wisconsin's teachers' sick-ins are one of the largest union job actions in years--and a long overdue show of labor's muscle. But the unprecedented mobilization is understood everywhere as an appropriate response to Walker's plan to slash state workers' pay and benefits--and bust public-sector unions.

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MUCH OF the media coverage of events on Thursday focused on the boycott of the senate session by Democrats, which denied Walker and the Republicans the quorum they needed to conduct business. According to news reports, the Democrats traveled out of state so that Wisconsin state troopers couldn't be sent after them to bring them back to the senate chambers and force a vote.

But Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson's exit from the Capitol was assisted by dozens of protesters who blocked his office with a sit-in midday February 17. Earlier, that same group--teachers, students, some building trades workers--scuffled repeatedly with Republican state senators and their staffers for two hours as they tried to reach the senate chambers through a nearby back staircase.

"It was the most militant action I've been involved in for a long time," said Shaun Harkin, a Chicago-based socialist and activist. "The woman leading began chanting, 'This is class war.' The guy next to me said, 'She's a kindergarten teacher.' We locked arms and sang, 'Solidarity Forever.'"

The sit-in outside Larson's office was a preview of a much bigger action a couple hours later outside the senate chambers. Although word had circulated that the Senate Democrats were safely out of state, protesters weren't taking any chances.

Anticipating the possibility that state troopers could seize control of an elevator located near a side entrance to the chamber, hundreds of students from the University of Wisconsin and area high schools and middle schools jammed the area. A large man in a United Steelworkers jacket made a point of putting himself between the elevator and the door--and got a large cheer of appreciation from those nearby.

At the same time, those blocking the main senate chamber entrance led the thousands of people in the Capitol in chants--"This is what democracy looks like!" "People power" and "Union power." With protesters covering the Capitol floor and all three circular balconies, the chants at times made normal conversation impossible.

Unlike the outdoor noon rally organized by union officials, the multi-level indoor occupation and protest had no organized speakers. Nevertheless, the crowd communicated through signs, banners and cheers.

The loudest roar came, like the previous day, when members of the Wisconsin Professional Fire Fighters Association marched through the rotunda. Another big hit was a sign carried by a bearded man in his 20s that read: "I Went to Iraq but I Came Home to Egypt." There were many other signs with the same theme, such as "Walker, Pharaoh of the Midwest," and depictions of Walker alongside ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.

To sustain the sit-in outside the Senate chambers, building trades workers brought in water, hot dogs, fruit and Oreo cookies, which were a big hit with a group of 14-year-old middle school students who joined the sit-in near an entry hall. "My mom is a teacher, so she really encourages this," said Julian Halsy-Milhaupt, an 8th grader at O'Keeffe Elementary School in Madison.

Those participating in the sit-in were prepared to physically prevent the senate from conducting business. Instead, Democrats members, by denying the senate a quorum and crossing state lines to avoid being forcibly brought to the legislative chambers, prevented Walker from muscling through a "budget repair bill" that would strip public-sector workers of the right to bargain collectively over anything other than wages.

Walker's bill would also end the automatic payment of union dues and compel unions to hold votes each year to recertify their status as bargaining units. The legislation would also force public employees to pay 12.6 percent of their health insurance costs, and contribute 5.8 percent of their paychecks toward their pensions.

That would slash take-home pay, say workers. "It sounds like it will be a minimum of 20 percent of our wages," said Dick Dahnert, a member of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 655 and a worker in the Jefferson County Highway Department.

Dahnert scoffed at Walker's claim--which has become the justification for attacking public-sector workers not only in Wisconsin, but around the country--that they have an easy, and early, retirement at taxpayers' expense. "The reality is that none of us can afford to retire early," Danhert said. "We'd be paying 100 percent of our insurance. Retiring early is not an option."

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THE STAKES in Walker's war on labor are clear to both sides. If he wins, he'll set an example for Republican governors and legislatures out to break public-sector unions in Ohio and Iowa. He'll also make it easier for Democratic governors, like Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York, to appear more reasonable as they press their own demands that public-sector workers suffer cuts in wages, pensions and jobs.

The difference is that Democrats will leave public-sector unions mostly intact--not because they're pro-worker, but because they want labor's fundraising and get-out-the-vote operations at election time.

Because Walker's plan poses a grave threat to the very existence of public-sector unions, top labor officials are being drawn into the fight.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten met with University of Wisconsin graduate employees who are members of her union the night of February 18. (Ironically, Weingarten came to Wisconsin fresh from a government-sponsored labor-management collaboration conference in Denver, at which she praised recent concessionary contracts as the way forward.) AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was reportedly set to speak at the February 18 rally at the Capitol.

But Trumka and Weingarten aren't coming to Madison to lead the movement so much as to catch up to it. Given the danger to labor posed by Walker's program, international union leaders should have joined their Wisconsin affiliates from the beginning in calling on union members far and wide to converge on the state in a show of solidarity. However, labor's long decline has left union officials with a defeatist mindset, and they were slow to act.

But the dramatic mobilization of rank-and-file union members, students and nonunion working people across Wisconsin has transformed the situation in a matter of days.

Anyone who participates in the rallies is struck by how the unions see themselves as fighting on behalf of the entire working class. And there is a palpable sense from nonunion workers and students that the organized working class has the power to hold the line against employers and politicians who are determined to carry out a permanent and deep cut in the standard of living of working people.

In other words, the one-sided class war is over. Unions in Wisconsin are fighting back--and they're doing so across union lines that have traditionally divided and weakened them. Around the Capitol, it's common to hear conversations from veteran unionists that they'd never seen anything like this from the labor movement--and they couldn't be happier.

But the struggle is far from over--and despite the powerful mobilizations, victory is by no means assured in Wisconsin. Walker has a Republican majority in both houses of the legislature to rely on if he can get a vote. "If this passes, it's going to be nationwide" said Dahnert, the highway worker. "You're going to see the quality of life go way down."

Asked if that means workers have to be prepared to escalate their action, he said: "I believe that's the only choice we have."