A badger’s choice: Fight or flight

March 15, 2011

Jack Trudell, a nurse in Wisconsin and member of SEIU Local 1199WI, dreams about what it will take to beat back Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting attack.

I WENT to bed late Friday night, head reeling from the ups and downs of our fight to defeat Scott Walker's brutish attacks on my home state, hoping that the massive numbers expected for the March 12 rally the next day might somehow turn the tide in a struggle that, for all its energy and solidarity, feels like it's slipping away.

I fell into a fitful sleep and dreamed of the post-Walker Madison diaspora--a vast exodus of battered Toyota Priuses, Honda minivans and white Subaru Outbacks, ragged Obama/Biden stickers flapping from their bumpers, as we leave behind shuttered public schools and moldering union contracts, and hit the road to avoid the coming of another bitter Wisconsin winter.

Instinctively eschewing Minnesota and Illinois, we meander south and west, singly or in small caravans, an army of dust-covered nurses and teachers, masters-prepared social workers and librarians.

We beg for work as home health care providers and tutors for rich families in Dallas and San Diego and Seattle. We laugh good-naturedly, ever polite, as their children mock our threadbare Packer sweatshirts, worn seasonal holiday socks and the way we draw out our vowels, pronounce O's like A's.

Workers from across Wisconsin demonstrated their anger at Scott Walker's anti-union law
Workers from across Wisconsin demonstrated their anger at Scott Walker's anti-union law

In the evenings, we huddle around rusting Weber grills, eating hardscrabble bratwurst and government cheese, sipping warm Miller Lite. We play euchre and do the Sodoku from scrounged newspapers as the glow from the coals wanes, talking low so we don't wake the kids. Sometimes we make love after washing with Purell stolen from local shopping malls and airports.

In the morning, we wake, pack the green and gold lawn chairs, spit on the unfamiliar ground and pull our cheeseheads low to shade our care-lined eyes from the hard sun of morning. Our children eat granola bars and watch Clone Wars, Season 2, for the thousandth time as the gravel crunches under our balding all-seasonal tires. Stomachs growling, we wonder if there's enough gas to make it to Burbank, maybe Phoenix...

I woke with a start, covered in sweat and lay, staring into the darkness, as I listened to my sleeping wife breathe. Eventually, desperate for sleep yet afraid of the visions that still haunted me, I read a few pages of Teamster Rebellion, Farrell Dobbs' magnificent account of the 1934 general strike in Minneapolis, before sleep once again took me.

THIS TIME I was at a huge rally on the Capitol square, clutching my picket sign, surrounded by tens of thousands of my fellow workers and union supporters, listening as our leaders described the next step in our struggle.

"This governor has refused to accept the concessions we handed him days into this fight," says AFSCME Council 24 Executive Director Marty Beil, his ponderous bulk dwarfing nearby actor Tony Shalhoub, star of TV's Monk--curiously, after Jesse Jackson and Michael Moore, the third most prominent person to stand with us despite the national importance of our fight in Wisconsin.

"So we shall immediately begin to collect signatures for his recall, along with those of his Republican henchmen. We can be sure that our friends in the Democratic Party will save us."

The crowd cheers as my jaw clenches, my hands tightening on my picket sign. "But 39,000 of our brothers and sisters will lose their collective bargaining rights tomorrow," cried an uneasy voice to my left. "Many of them are your own members. What will a recall months or years from now do for them?"

"And how can we trust the Democrats?" cries another. "They've hardly been steadfast allies in the past--didn't they give us 14 unpaid furlough days last year? Wasn't it they who refused to extend our contracts with the state, saving our unions from Walker's wrath?"

"Then we shall boycott those companies who backed Walker," mutters Beil after a brief pause, sweating now despite the cold winter wind. "That'll put the pressure on."

"Boycott Miller Beer and Johnsonville Brats?" cries the voice to my left, more confident now. "In Wisconsin? You cannot be serious."

Eyes rolling wildly as the crowd begins to murmur, Beil sputters, "We'll arrange for direct deposits from your bank accounts. The dues base will be protected," when suddenly, he is shoved rudely aside. He crumples to the ground, victim of both the push and his own chronic lack of spinal fortitude. Helped by a grinning Shalhoub, an elementary school social worker, resplendent in knitted newsboy hat and Ugg Boots, steps over him and strides to the microphone.

"I am here as a member of Madison Teachers Inc.," she announces, head high despite the bitter wind. "We have refused the concessions offered to us by the school board and have voted to strike. We ask your solidarity--join us as we fight for a decent contract, and together, we can save our unions and restore dignity and justice to working people throughout the land. Will you stand with us?"

We are stunned momentarily, then we surge forward. As Tony Shalhoub raises one black-gloved fist, we cry as one: "Solidarity!"

Within days, students across the city walk out to support the teachers, joined soon after by a strike of students at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison after the Teaching Assistants' Association declares they will stand by the teachers, whose picket lines are strengthened by the cornucopia of unions--Teamsters, Electrical Workers, Ironworkers, Steelworkers, Laborers--who have marched at our sides in Madison for weeks.

As a late snowstorm drops six inches of snow, the City Engineers and Madison Metro Bus Drivers also come out--the city grinds to a halt. The prison guards, stripped of their union, announce their intention to strike in 10 days unless their bargaining rights are returned, and Walker calls out the National Guard.

Nurses and others workers at UW Hospital occupy the hospital and organize themselves to deliver health services to those cut from BadgerCare under Walker's vicious budget.

The lights at the Labor Temple burn late each night, casting long, shifting shadows in the snow as delegates from unions and workplaces from across the city and the state scurry back and forth with messages of solidarity and food for the families of striking workers.

The alarm woke me with a start, and I dressed warm, anticipating another long day of marching in what would turn out to be the biggest labor rally in Wisconsin history, some 150,000 people by some estimates. The next day, MTI signed a contract extension, trading huge concessions in an effort to forestall their destruction under Walker's new law for another two years. I decided I'd better check the tires on the minivan.

Further Reading

From the archives