The struggle will continue

March 14, 2011

Nicole Colson reports from Madison on a huge demonstration against Scott Walker's union-busting law--and the discussion about what comes next in the fight for our rights.

MORE THAN 150,000 workers, students and retirees jammed the grounds of Wisconsin's Capitol building to protest Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting law that all but eliminates the right of public employees to collective bargaining, imposes an effective wage cut on state employees of as much as 7 percent, and makes sweeping changes to Wisconsin's health care programs for the poor.

After weeks of protest that included the inspiring takeover of the Capitol building by students and workers, almost daily demonstrations in Madison and across the state, and Democratic senators fleeing the state to hold up the bill, Walker used a legal loophole last week to push through the bill's most controversial provisions--a direct assault on organized labor.

The mood on Saturday was both anger at Walker and the Republicans--and upbeat at the massive turnout. The 14 Democratic senators, returning to the state for the first time since leaving to avoid giving Walker a quorum to pass the bill, were given a heroes' welcome, with frequent chants of "Thank you" from the crowd and signs proclaiming love for the "Fab 14."

Workers and supporters from across the Midwest marched in Madison after Walker signed the union-busting law
Workers and supporters from across the Midwest marched in Madison after Walker signed the union-busting law (Ken Fager)

But Democratic officials and labor leaders were mostly successful in shifting attention away from the furious sentiment for stepping up the fight with workers' actions. Instead, the most popular chants on Saturday were not for "General strike!" but "Recall!"--a campaign to unseat at least eight Republican senators and eventually Walker himself.

Hopefully, the recalls will succeed in kicking out the anti-union Republicans--but in the meanwhile, Walker and Co. will try to implement their law, and the mass movement that erupted against the anti-labor law should confront them. Thus, the question of where the struggle should go from here hung over the March 12 protest in Madison.

Certainly, the struggle in Wisconsin will continue, as activists who are losing most union rights strategize over how to keep the union strong on the job despite the fact that management has no legal obligation to negotiate. Meanwhile, workers in other states are sizing up the lessons of Wisconsin.

If business-backed Republicans keep pushing anti-union legislation despite vast protests, labor will have to take even more decisive action to defeat these attacks. The proposal of a general strike--debated in Wisconsin over the last three weeks--will continue to get a hearing.

IN ANY case, the struggle in Wisconsin and beyond will go foreword with a profound sense of solidarity.

Large numbers of unionists from across Wisconsin and the Midwest traveled to Madison for the March 12 protest, including members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Teamsters, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Service Employees International Union, National Nurses United (NNU), Madison Teachers Inc., the Teaching Assistants' Association at the University of Wisconsin, and many others.

In a display of the pride they take as the workers who make Wisconsin run, members of the United Steelworkers wore their hardhats, while Madison firefighters turned out in their work jackets.

Many of those who aren't in public-sector unions--or even in unions at all--came out to show their support because they recognize the importance of the historic struggle in Wisconsin, and the drive to carry out the same attacks on private-sector workers as well as workers in other states across the country in the name of "austerity."

Among the pre-printed signs reading "Blame Wall Street, No Concessions" from the NNU, and those from the AFL-CIO with a blue fist against a red background and the words "Stand With Wisconsin" were thousands of creative homemade signs, often ridiculing Walker as a weasel, not a badger (the state's official animal mascot). One sign featured a picture of the governor that read "Does this ass make my sign look big?" and another read, "Get your head out of your Walker."

Signs from AFSCME warned, "Walker, your pink slip is coming," while others called for recalling the governor and taxing the rich. A teacher carried a sign reading "I'm a teacher, not a freeloader."

Even family pets got into the act--with dogs wearing signs reading "Koch sniffing dog" (a reference to the billionaire right-wing brothers who backed Walker's campaign for governor and recently set up a lobbying office in Madison) and "Animals for the Ethical Treatment of People." Rising struggles around the globe were mentioned as well, with signs reading "Egypt, Libya, Madison, Wis.: Civil unrest is best."

Earlier, more than 50 farmers turned out with their tractors for a "tractorcade" around the Capitol, organized by the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Family Farm Defenders (and complete with signs comparing Walker to the manure spreaders).

As the crowd began to fill in the grounds around the Capitol and the surrounding streets, it was clear that people from all walks of life were in attendance. Teachers, including members of Madison Teachers Inc., made up a large presence in the crowd. "So many of the unions being targeted are pink-collar jobs--teachers, social workers, nurses, which are female-dominated--so we see this as an attack on women as well," said Colleen Berry, a teacher from New London, Wis., who recently received a layoff notice along with her entire district.

One of the best speeches of the day came from left-wing actor Susan Sarandon, who told the crowd, "This is more than a demonstration. This is a movement...The Constitution does not grant workers the right to form a union, to have safe working conditions, or to work less than 12 hours a day. These things had to be fought for and won by workers themselves: going on strike, defying the law, defying the courts and relying on each other."

The firefighters were also out in force among the crowd, many dressed in their jackets, helmets and other gear. From the beginning, firefighters have stood in defense of other workers--despite the fact that Walker's bill specifically exempts both them and police. "They were trying to divide labor and separate the firefighters. Well, we stand up for our brothers and sisters in the unions. Solidarity is what it's all about," said Dave Bathke, a firefighter and EMT instructor in Waukesha County.

Bathke said his grandfather had been an educator who fought for the right to collective bargaining in the 1950s. He explained:

[Walker] felt he could divide and conquer, but we know we're next. So that's why we're standing here in solidarity with our union brothers and sisters. I've been here since the start, and the turnout today is sending a strong message.

It better send a strong message to Gov. Walker and his Republican cronies to wake up. We will not tolerate being terrorized, or this genocide on workers' rights. Take a look around--these people will all be voting yes to recall him and to recall his Republican counterparts.

Protester Michael Mulvey, a math teacher of nine years, had Scott Walker's son as a student two years ago. He held a sign that read: "Scott, I taught your son algebra. Now you want to slash funding for my kid's schools while giving tax breaks to your corporate buddies. That's shared sacrifice?" As Mulvey said, "Scott Walker doesn't care about ordinary people in Wisconsin. He only cares about his corporate buddies, and that's why I'm out here today."

He added: "[The turnout] is excellent. It just shows how angry people are. I believe that it also shows that a wave is coming over Wisconsin. This isn't going to stand. We're going to recall all these Senate Republicans, and I think in less than a year's time, we'll be recalling Scott Walker."

Many of those in attendance spoke of what it will mean for working people if Walker is able to get away with gutting their union rights. Last month, in a prank phone call in which he thought he was talking to one of the billionaire right-wing Koch brothers, Walker was recorded talking about Ronald Reagan's attack on the air traffic controllers' union PATCO. It was, Walker said, "one of the most defining moments of his political career."

Those who turned out on Saturday know how high the stakes are. As Jim Anton, a member of IBEW Local 890 from Williams Bay, Wis., said:

An injury to one is an injury to all. If they break one union, they can break them all. We learned that 30 years ago when Reagan kicked out the air traffic controllers. We should have stood up then, and we didn't. Now's the time. Enough is enough...

I think that this has educated people--that they've looked back and found that because of unions, you have an eight-hour day. You have weekends off. You've have health care. You have the benefits that a union will bring.

What's in store for Wisconsin workers could be seen in a hasty tentative agreement between the union, Madison Teachers Inc., and the Madison Metropolitan School District--made at 3 a.m. the morning of the march. The agreement is an attempt to preserve a contract for the next two years before Walker's law goes into effect--but at the cost of a huge retreat.

The school board reportedly squeezed $23 million in concessions from teachers over the next two years. If members ratify the contract, wages will be frozen, and workers will contribute 50 percent of the total money going to pension plans. "That figure, according to district officials, is believed to be very close to the 12 percent overall contribution that Gov. Walker's 'budget repair bill' was calling for," according to

In an added slap in the face, teachers will also be docked pay for the four days that they walked off the job to protest at the Capitol last month.

THROUGHOUT THE day, the focus from labor leaders and politicians on the stage was on the idea of recalling Walker and the Republicans.

Typical of that sentiment was Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee, who told the crowd, "Now...we trade in our rally signs for clipboards, and we take to the streets to recall the Republicans, and in one year, we recall the governor that refuses to listen."

Rev. Jesse Jackson joined in the chorus of those focused on recall, invoking the civil rights struggle to argue that people should remember the slaying of Martin Luther King on April 4, but then, on April 5, go to the polls to oust right-wing state Supreme Court justice David Prosser in favor of veteran Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg.

The recall effort may well succeed in ousting some Republicans--and it is a way of keeping pressure on them. But it's no substitute for the protests, occupations and workers' actions that have revived the U.S. labor movement overnight. Even if it succeeds, recall campaigns will take months, if not years, to win, since Wisconsin politicians cannot be recalled until after they serve a full year in office.

An electoral effort that demobilizes workers will only strengthen the hands of Walker and public-sector managers who are itching to show who's boss. The solidarity seen on the streets and the occupation of the Capitol has to be shown on the job, too, in order to defend the unions and make them effective fighters for workers' rights, whatever the law says.

And as many activists point out, electing Democrats is no guarantee that austerity measures will be rolled back and the right to collective bargaining restored. In many states--such as California, New York and Illinois--it is Democratic governors and legislators who are leading the charge to cut the pensions and benefits of public-sector unions. President Barack Obama himself targeted public-sector workers by seeking a three-year wage freeze on federal employees outside the defense and national security sectors.

As Aurora Insurriaga, a retired United Steelworkers member who traveled from Chicago, pointed out:

I'm here trying to bring attention to all of the influence that big corporations have over our politicians, who are selling our citizens down the river...and I include the Democrats in that. We need to get rid of all corporate lobbying...What has Obama done? He said he'd be out here [walking the picket line] with the people, but he hasn't put his shoes on.

BEYOND THESE considerations, any effort to distill what has happened in Wisconsin--the occupations, protests, the job actions and the pride that workers have taken in their fight against the cuts--into a recall campaign ignores the radical transformation in how many Wisconsin workers now see themselves.

On stage, one Democrat asked the crowd, "How many of you vote?" Alluding to the recall campaign, she added, "We're going to make a change."

But Wisconsin workers already have made a change--whether or not Walker was able to ram through the bill. They have glimpsed the fact that they don't have to accept the attack on their jobs, families and living standards. And they have begun to be transformed by the struggles they've taken part in over the past month.

According to Dale Peterson, an animal caretaker at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and member of AFSCME Local 171, who carried a sign that read "Don't call me a union thug! I prefer 'Goon' and/or a 'good citizen of Wisconsin'":

[I]t's turned people like us who used to say, "I support it but I'm not going," and encouraged us to come out and fight. I'm disappointed with Walker and the Republicans, but also the local corporate media. But I'm more resolved than angry...I'm here in the trenches, and we're going to keep going, and I think a lot of people here feel the same way. The next step is recall...elections can happen as early as May, and they will happen...There will be hell to pay and it will be paid...

People keep calling for rallies and job actions, and are doing the education and internal organizing that hasn't happened over the past 40 years. We're not ready for a general strike, but I support job actions here and keep the momentum going. A general strike--that's the trump card, but now is not the time to play it.

Other protesters echoed the same sentiments. "I believe it's going to take a general strike from the people to stop this," Tim Levesque, a member of Steelworkers Local 6500, District 6, from Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, stated. He added:

If we can act now peacefully, I think we can make a big change. My family and I came here from Ontario. What's happening here in Wisconsin, if these bills pass, it'll be like a wave across the U.S. and Canada...We need to come together.

There is enough material resources to provide a decent standard of living for everybody and not just the few rich people who run the world. A victory here might show us in Canada that it can be done, so it's important for this bill to be demolished.

"I think there are three things going on," said Jim Anton, the IBEW member. "There's the recall of the senators and Walker, that could shift that body; there's the court battles; and then there's the general strike that could, and may, happen. " But, he added, "It would take the organization of all these people to put it together. "

In the meantime, Walker and the Republicans are dreaming if they think signing the bill is going to make the anger directed at them dissipate. At a Sunday invitation-only fundraiser for the governor in Washburn, Wis., Walker was greeted by as many as 5,000 angry protesters chanting "Shame!" at every car that drove in.

Wisconsin workers are proving to Walker that they aren't going to back down.

Gary Lapon contributed to this article.

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