A taste of our power in Madison

February 28, 2011

Leighton Christiansen, an officer at large in the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, describes the scene in Wisconsin.

I HAD the opportunity to spend a day in Madison, Wis., participating in the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol, as tens of thousands of Wisconsin union members, unorganized workers, students and citizens protested against a "budget repair bill" introduced by Gov. Scott Walker.

The bill would gut collective bargaining and other union rights, and would force wage, pension and health benefit concessions, among other measures. The effect will be to destroy unions and worsen the suffering of working people in Wisconsin.

The first thing you notice in Madison is the mood. I've had the opportunity in the past to spend time in Madison, organizing and protesting, but the mood is different now. Walking up State Street with my "Kill the Bill" sign in hand, I was among dozens of folks walking to and from the Capitol building. Most of them had signs of their own, supporting the fight against the bill.

And while I'm used to Midwesterners being polite, everyone had a smile for me and a "hello"--and when they found out I was from out of town, a "thank you." Having been an "outside agitator" for 25 years now, I am used to a somewhat different reaction.

The "family space" for kids set up inside the Wisconsin capitol building
The "family space" for kids set up inside the Wisconsin capitol building (Julie Fain | SW)

At every corner while waiting for the light to change, or in front of any bar with a TV in its window, people are gathered, talking about the Walker bill, how if would affect them and their co-workers and families, and what to do about it. On one corner, a group of firefighters were standing with their signs, passing traffic honking in support. Every shop window along State Street has a sign or signs against the bill and supporting Wisconsin's workers. Nearly ever corner had a small gathering of picketers or at least a street orator--and folks listening.

When I got to the Capitol, there were pickets walking every sidewalk around the building. During the 1980s and 1990s, I walked a number of picket lines in solidarity with workers around the Midwest, including in Janesville, Wis. Those picket lines often had a dark mood, as workers fought a losing battle, hoping at best to take no cuts.

The Wisconsin picketers are mad as hell at Walker, but smiling and laughing among themselves, joyous in the creative energy folks are putting into this fight. You would never have known that it was drizzling and 30 degrees.

When I walked up to the Capitol doors with my sign, the state trooper there looked me in the eye and asked, "How are you today?"--and was actually interested in the answer. I was surprised. But I learned that the state troopers, police, firefighters and even prison guards, who tend to be the most right-wing members of AFSCME in Wisconsin, are taking part in the protests.

INSIDE THE Capitol, I find thousands of people, even on a Wednesday afternoon. While not the tens of thousands of the weekend, the energy was high. Workers and family members surrounded the rotunda on three floors, holding signs, listening to speakers at the bottom of the well, chanting "Tell me what does democracy look like? THIS is what democracy looks like!" and "Kill the Bill."

Numerous unions are present or have left signs behind from earlier visits: AFSCME, Teaching Assistants' Association, Teamsters, Steelworkers, American Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Pipefitters, UNITE HERE, Union de Trabajadores Inmigrantes, National Nurses United, the Sheet Metal Workers, and many more.

There are solidarity signs from workers in Michigan. Everywhere are signs linking the struggle in Madison to the struggle in Egypt. There are signs showing solidarity from Wisconsin with the people of Libya, fighting to overthrow their dictator Qaddafi.

And of course, pizza boxes are ubiquitous. The outpouring of solidarity has meant that the occupiers and protesters have not gone hungry. A local pizza place is only supplying orders for the Capitol occupation--city residents will either have to wait until the protests are over, or go to the Capitol and occupy if they want a slice from this shop.

But for the "Cheddar Revolution," the supplies of food aren't the problem. Around various of the building, there are tables of food and stacks of bottled water flats, although at this points fresh fruits and vegetables would be welcome. I find out from occupation organizers that hand sanitizer and socks are the greater need (Click here if you would like to help).

Organizers tell me they are amazed by the community spirit of the protesters. Martina and Molly, members of the TAA, share their awe and appreciation of protesters using their various skills to help make the occupation a community. "Someone put up food safety signs--who would think of that?" Martina wonders. Some other folks set up a first aid station, which occupation organizers had not thought of.

We often speak of the creativity and energy of the working class and their ability to run workplaces or society democratically and without bosses...and in Madison, we are seeing that energy and those talents unleashed.

Everywhere, there is a sense of collective power. But at 4 p.m., when three busloads of union members and activists from Los Angeles--people who would have been on a bus at least 24 hours to get to Madison--march into the rotunda, the occupiers go wild. Chants and cheers fill the rotunda until you can feel the pressure of the sound. Back-thumping and fist-bumping, hugs and tears follow the LA contingent as they march around each floor of the Capitol.

We see banners and jackets and shirts and signs from the Communications Workers of America, International Longshore Workers Union, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, AFSCME, the area AFL-CIO, and many others. This solidarity celebration lasts for 15 or 20 minutes, and the energy carries into the regular 5 p.m. rally held for folks coming in after work.

Inside the Capitol, there are numerous conversations about the way forward, about what an ass Walker is, and laughter about the prank phone call that captured how arrogant he is when he thought he was talking to one of his big backers. Signs call for negotiations, since the unions have agreed to wage cuts. Others say, "Kill the WHOLE Bill." This is the big question of the Madison protests: What ending are we willing to accept?

Some Wisconsin union leaders have already said they would accept the wage and benefit cuts in the Walker budget bill, as long as collective bargaining rights are protected for public employees. But this stance has been the 30-year practice of private-sector union leaders in the U.S., in auto, in trucking and other industries.

While this strategy has for the most part protected the jobs of union leaderships and bureaucracies, what do workers have to show for it? Fewer unionized jobs, lower wages, and more expensive benefits. Private sector unionization is at a century-long low, at 7.2 percent. Living standards are declining for the working class. And we know from talking to Wisconsin workers that if these cuts go through, working union members may be forced to sell their homes, go bankrupt and go on assistance just to live.

This can be avoided if we can kill the whole bill. This was the mood of most of the scores of protesters I talked to while passing out the "Why We Demands No Cuts" statement that Madison International Socialist Organization members, many of them public-sector workers, released. The show of power in Madison also led Wisconsin's South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) to call for a national general strike if the bill passes.

FOLKS IN Wisconsin are starting to figure out how to harness their energy and make this a more sustainable fight. Teachers in some districts are using rolling sickouts that don't shut down the whole district, but still allow for a strong union presence at the Capitol. Unions are also taking turns occupying the Capitol overnight with the TAA, a sort of rolling sleep-in. Unions such as the SEIU are preparing to send full-time organizers to Wisconsin to beef up the campaign to kill the bill.

The uprising in Madison has inspired workers in Ohio to protest against similar bills. The action has forced other Republican leaders, such as in Indiana, to pull back from similar union killing measures.

The organized power of the U.S. working class can stop these attacks--but only if we make sure our leaders don't accept a compromise. The momentum is on our side in Wisconsin. This isn't the time to settle for half an attack on our rights, for half of a murderous bill. We can stop the whole bill and turn back this attack.

Show your solidarity with workers in Wisconsin and around the country. Send messages of support and solidarity. Stand against similar measures in your state. Get in the car or on the bus or on the plane and come to Madison. It is true that U.S. labor history is being written in Madison, and this is a movement you should be a part of.

The one-sided nature of the class war of the last 35 years is coming to an end. Just as the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are inspiring populations across the Arab world to fight back, they inspired workers in Madison. And the occupation in Madison is having an effect across the U.S.

Come to Madison, get a taste of collective power, and take it home to your struggles. You will be changed. And this is the change that we need.

See you in Madison.

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