Solidarity City

February 28, 2011

Elizabeth Schulte and Lee Sustar report on the outpouring of support for Wisconsin public-sector unions--and a debate over continuing the occupation of the state Capitol.

IT'S A city that has been taken over by protest--on the streets and in the Capitol building.

As many as 100,000 people from all over Wisconsin and beyond converged in the state capital of Madison February 26 for a Saturday protest against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plans to pass a bill that would do away with public-sector workers' collective bargaining rights and end automatic deduction of union dues from workers' paychecks, among many other austerity measures.

Outside the Capitol, workers, students and families marched in contingents large and small, in what even police called the largest day of demonstrations yet against Walker's assault. Inside the building--which has been occupied by workers and students for nearly two weeks--protesters are also in control.

At the end of Sunday evening, there was a threat to the movement as police prepared to clear the building. But protesters maintained their occupation inside the Capitol--thanks to hundreds of activists who refused to heed calls by some movement leaders to surrender the site. The police backed down from threatened arrests.

Workers and supporters gather outside the Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison
Workers and supporters gather outside the Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison (Carole Ramsden)

But at the same time, Walker was ramping up pressure by threatening layoffs on March 1 if Wisconsin Senate Democrats don't return to the state and vote on his proposal. Fourteen senators fled the state earlier this month in order to deny Republicans a quorum in the state senate.

WALKER'S "BUDGET repair bill" would not only take away union rights for public-sector workers, but impose deep cuts that will have long-term effects on working families. It would force state workers to increase their payments for health care and pensions, and it would slash Medicaid and BadgerCare, the health care program for kids in low-income families.

In response, students and workers in Wisconsin are fighting back--and this past weekend, they and their supporters from all over the state got on buses to march in Madison and take a stand in what they see as a fight for all workers.

"I'm here to support all the state workers who have been denigrated in the press as useless," said Donna Doyle, a retired state employee who worked 35 years for the Wisconsin state senate. She was carrying several signs, one of them from National Nurses United (NNU) that read "Blame Wall Street, no concessions."

"The biggest thing is that once someone starts taking rights away from somebody, they'll take rights away from everybody," Doyle continued. "So if you live in the state of Wisconsin, you have to stand up and say no. That's democracy."

It seemed like every union in existence was on hand February 26 to show their opposition to Walker's attacks. AFSCME, NNU, Service Employees International Union, Steelworkers, Sheet Metal Workers, Boilermakers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Teamsters, Operating Engineers and Air Line Pilots Association were there--and many, many more.

Everywhere you turned, there were teachers, their students and their families. Many carried signs that read, "Care about teachers the way they care about your child."

"I can't understand how you expect kids to learn as it is," said Erika Ruhl, a recent graduate from Marquette University in Milwaukee. "And then to take away from teachers--that's incredibly hurtful."

"I'm also here for my mom," Ruhl said. "She teaches at a technical college in Appleton, and she was lucky because her union was able to negotiate early," before Walker's bill was proposed. "But there were others who weren't able to get it through in time. She's safe for now, but what does that mean when her contract runs out?"

Another Marquette student, Caitlin Brock, agreed. "I'm especially concerned about collective bargaining rights for teachers and other state workers," she said. "As the daughter of an educator, I'm concerned about the treatment of the people who educate our children."

Handmade signs were everywhere, all marked by creativity--and a lot of humor. "Librarians will not be shushed," declared the sign of one demonstrator among a group of coworkers. Another sign outlined three simple demands: "Beer, brats and bargaining."

Demonstrators weren't shy about directing their anger at Scott Walker. One sign showed the governor as Marie Antoinette, saying, "Let them eat cheese"--and we all know what happened to the French queen. Another sign had a picture of overthrown Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak alongside Walker, with the words "One dictator down. One to go."

Walker's Tea Party backers, the billionaire Koch brothers, were a popular target of ridicule in protesters' signs and chants. A couple days before the protest, Walker was tricked into a telephone conversation with a blogger he thought was David Koch. The recorded dialogue exposed Walker's true attitude as he discussed the merits of "planting some troublemakers" in the crowds of protesters.

MANY PROTESTERS waited for half an hour to get inside the Capitol building itself--ground zero for the standoff.

Demonstrators began occupying the building on February 15. Since then, the white marble Capitol has been transformed--from a quiet and cold place where legislators backslap one another and pass legislation awarding corporations with tax breaks into a loud and riotous city within a city, decorated with colorful expressions of solidarity.

Along a set of stairs, the walls are neatly lined with printouts of messages to Walker and state legislators, demanding that Walker's bill be defeated. There are more than 10,000.

There is food and water if you need it, and a child care area. Even the lost-and-found was well organized--hats, jackets, gloves, scarves in separate piles. Volunteers are constantly at work, picking up trash and cleaning the floors to make sure there is no damage to the historic building.

The favorite chant is "This is what democracy looks like!"--the slogan of the 1990s global justice movement. And it has never more perfectly fit the mood of a group of people than in Madison.

On the floor of the rotunda, protesters took turns at the mic, as hundreds of people cheered and chanted from the balconies on the floors above. A member of the Iraq Veterans Against the War stood with his fellow vets and soldiers and told the crowd, "We are public-sector workers, and we stand with you." That message had special significance because Walker promised to call out the National Guard on public-sector workers if they dared to strike.

Banners and signs hung from the balconies and every possible space on the walls--messages from unions from California to New York City. White sheets are painted with demands: "Kill the Bill," "Kill the WHOLE Bill," "Tax the Rich."

Periodically, people began their own small marches through the building, as others cheered them on and joined their chants. On Saturday, contingents included Chicago teachers and a group of their students; doctors in white coats with stethoscopes around their necks; and building trades workers in their hardhats. Everyone is proud to stand up and be counted for the work that they do every day to make Wisconsin run.

But the firefighters got the greatest response. Decked out in their firehats and boots, they were led by a group of bagpipers playing "Amazing Grace." People around the building raised their fists.

The firefighters were among the union workers who have taken turns occupying the Capitol through the night, with the knowledge that it would be harder for police to throw out the students if the firefighters are also sleeping in.

The night before the Friday demonstration, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association (WPPA) took the unprecedented step of calling on members to come sleep in the Capitol. "The law enforcement officers from across the state have been working at the Capitol and have been very impressed with how peaceful everyone has been," WPPA Executive Director Jim Palmer announced on Friday.

Palmer added, "Law enforcement officers know the difference between right and wrong, and Governor Walker's attempt to eliminate the collective voice of Wisconsin's devoted public employees is wrong."

THE POLICE union's pro-labor stance didn't matter much on Sunday, February 27, when hundreds of cops deployed in huge numbers to try and intimidate protesters into abandoning their occupation. The threat of mass arrests sparked debates over how--and even whether--to maintain the occupation.

The police had announced that as of 4 p.m. on Sunday, they would close off access to the Capitol. By midday, it had become clear that they would make good on that threat, as police blocked some 2,000 people from entering.

On the ground floor beneath the rotunda, the daily open mic speakout turned into a sharp discussion. Several speakers urged compliance with police orders to vacate the ground floor.

The most prominent among them was Democratic State Rep. Brett Hulsey, who narrowly won election last fall after a challenge from Green candidate Ben Manski. Hulsey dominated the microphone and argued that everyone should leave peacefully, according to Ashley Smith, a Vermont socialist on hand to do antiwar organizing. "Hulsey argued that everyone should leave with him peacefully, and that we could come back tomorrow," Smith said.

About 100 people followed Hulsey out of the building, where he continued to argue for the crowd to disperse. But inside, activists chanted "Let them in," and police allowed about 100 people to enter, boosting the spirits of those who wanted to maintain the occupation.

Nevertheless, several people who had been among the leadership of the movement--including prominent members of the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA), the graduate employees union at the University of Wisconsin--argued for a retreat.

Earlier, TAA had complied with a police request to remove food from the building, making it much harder to sustain the occupation. On Sunday afternoon, members of the union argued that the only choice was to leave the building voluntarily or be arrested. Several people who wanted to argue to maintain the action and call on supporters to come to the Capitol were denied access to the mic.

"They said, 'Either you stay or go.' Either you exit or go up to the first floor, where you are going to await your fate," said Sarah Lynne, managing editor of The Clarion, the student newspaper of Madison Area Technical College. "But there were a lot of people who said that they didn't want to take either course of action--that they didn't know if they would be arrested. But by telling people to leave, they did diminish the crowd pretty quickly."

Even so, hundreds were prepared to stay. That became clear when Katrina Flores, a leader of the National Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) chapter at UW, managed to get the microphone and argued that if a large enough number of people were prepared to stay in the building overnight, the police would back down. Her argument was taken up in chant: "Stand our ground! Stand our ground!"

But once people had moved upstairs, police deployed in large numbers on the floor above them, as well as on the ground floor below. Meanwhile, a woman with a button reading "Democratic Assembly Staff" was consulting frequently with Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs and making calls on her mobile phone. Describing herself as a "volunteer," she refused to identify herself when asked by a reporter.

For his part, Tubbs told reporters that union leaders had agreed to a plan in which the police would seek "voluntary compliance" with protesters in order to facilitate the "cleaning" of the building. He refused to say whether preparations for mass arrests had been made. But several of the cops stationed around the entrances of the building confirmed that they were prepared to take protesters into custody.

Then, just after 6 p.m., the announcement came that Republican Wisconsin State Sen. Dale Schultz had withdrawn his support for Walker's anti-union "budget repair bill." The crowd erupted with joy, seeing a crack in Walker's side for the first time. About the same time, police began to stand down, and Tubbs announced that the protesters could stay for the night, and that food could be brought in.

The decision by the police to back off was likely based on the political fallout from mass arrests. It would have taken hours to clear the building of the 600 or so people who remained inside. And the protesters couldn't be dismissed by Walker as excitable students--the occupiers were multi-generational and included union firefighters, electricians and teachers, as well as graduate students, undergrads and high school students.

"We have the right to be here," Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, told CNN from inside the Capitol. "This is the people's house. This is the house of labor. This is a house that Wisconsin built."

However, the union members in attendance were there mainly as individuals, not as an organized contingent. Given that the deadline for trying to close the Capitol had been announced well in advance, the unions could have used the Saturday mass protest to call for organized support for the building occupation, as they had done earlier. Their failure to do so--and their alleged agreement with the police--will lead to sharp debates about the importance of maintaining control of the "people's house."

If union leaders bow to the demands of police--who, of course, are controlled by Walker--to take full control of the Capitol, it will divide and weaken the movement at a crucial moment.

WHERE THE struggle goes next is anybody's guess. The loss of the Capitol would be a major setback. It would deprive the movement of its focus, energy and organizing center and make it easier for Walker to pressure Senate Democrats into coming back to Madison and making a deal at the unions' expense.

Keeping the occupation going, by contrast, allows the movement to continually draw new people into activity, engage them in political debate, and further the organizational reach of the movement.

The other key question is whether unions are prepared to use the muscle that they showed from the beginning of the fight, when teacher sick-ins shut down schools in Madison and across the state. Walker's hard-line stance on NBC's Meet the Press--in which he insisted that he was unmoved by the protests--will only raise the pressure on the unions.

Yet despite the splendid show of union power on Saturday, labor leaders have already agreed to Walker's demands for higher employee contributions on health care and pensions--as long as he agrees to maintain collective bargaining and allow the collection of dues that sustains the union apparatus. In other words, union leaders are willing to call for militant job actions to protect their own economic well-being, but not that of the membership.

That contradiction has rankled many union activists, who are frustrated that officials don't fully challenge Walker's claim that workers must make sacrifices to help close state budget deficits.

For that reason, National Nurses United organized a February 27 forum at the Madison Labor Temple on the theme of rejecting any more concessions for workers. Speakers included Jim Cavanaugh, president of the South Central Federation of Labor; J. Eric Cobb, executive director of the Building Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin; John Matthews, executive director, Madison Teachers Inc.; nurse Jan Rodolfo, national outreach coordinator of National Nurses United; Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union; and John Nichols, a writer for The Nation magazine. About 60 union members and supporters attended and agreed to keep organizing against all anti-worker cuts in Wisconsin and across the U.S.

Whether or not working people in Wisconsin agree that concessions to Walker are necessary, they recognize that this is a fight not just for members of public-sector unions, but all workers. At the mass rally on February 26, there was a widespread sentiment that the stakes are high.

"I'm not a member of a union, but I do support the unions," said Sharon Campshure, who has lived in Wisconsin for 20 years, but was recently laid off and plans to move out of state to look for work. "I think what's happening right now is just the tip of the iceberg."

Claude Rochon, a pediatric nurse at American Family Children's Hospital at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for eight years, had been coming to the Capitol every day for more than a week.

"I'm here to protect collective bargaining," he said. "I feel like we won't be able to say no to our shifts--that we'll be forced to work mandatory overtime and 16-hour shifts, and it will create an unsafe health care environment. I think the movement is getting bigger and bigger, and it will help them switch some of their minds that it's bigger than they thought it would be. I noticed the first day I was here it was about 4,000 people, and it's continually growing bigger and bigger." Several of his union brothers and sisters in Service Employees International Union slept there the night before.

There is also awareness of the ripples that this struggle is making elsewhere. Pointing to the woman next to him, Rochon said, "Her family in the Philippines heard about it and called to make sure she was okay--that's how big it's gotten. I figure that if Wisconsin falls, the other Republican governors are going to look at that as a green light to keep on trying to bust the unions."

Outside the building on Saturday, thousands gathered under the falling snowflakes to listen to speeches. Speakers included actors and Wisconsin natives Bradley Whitford and Gabrielle Carteris, as well as a series of rank-and-file union members--a lineup intended to refute Walker's claim that demonstrators were all from out of state.

Even as people walked through the streets in search of a seat in a local restaurant, they broke into chants. Wisconsinites happily greeted the "outside agitators" from other states that Walker complains about so much.

People introduced themselves to each other and talked about what is happening at their jobs, to discuss how far should this struggle can and should go. A group of teachers from upper Wisconsin discussed the assault on teachers in Providence, R.I., where the school board recently voted to send notices of termination to every single teacher.

But on February 26, this worry, frustration and anger was focused, expressed and transformed into a different kind of feeling--one that emerges when workers come together and show their power.

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