Time to get the people out again

June 9, 2011

When union members, students and community activists returned to the scene of the struggle this week at the state Capitol building in Madison, Wis., you could be sure that Fire Fighters Local 311 would be near the front of the line--and that's exactly where they were at the Monday, June 6, march on the Capitol to begin a new battle in the war for workers' rights in Wisconsin.

The Madison firefighters were the heart of the Capitol occupation last February and March against Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting attack on public-sector workers--even though their union was exempted from the legislation's anti-labor provisions. Now, with Walker trying to drive through a slash-and-burn budget--and with recall elections targeting several Republican lawmakers still over a month away--the firefighters are part of a coalition of unionists and other activists who are seeking to revive a grassroots protest movement.

Joe Conway is president of Local 311. He spoke to Sam Jordan about the latest demonstrations and what it will take to stop the anti-union attack in Wisconsin.

WHY DID you decide to help plan and participate in the June 6 march on the Capitol and the renewal of the protests?

WE DECIDED to close down the Capitol Square, and bring out the firefighters again, bring out the teachers, bring out the nurses, bring out the farmers and seniors--everybody who is going to be affected by this budget.

We've been sitting back waiting to see what's going to happen with the recall elections, and this budget is moving through very quickly. It's important to get people out. A lot of people are going to get hurt by this budget. So we decided to start today to begin to mobilize again--to get the marchers out.

I think things went extremely well. I believe we accomplished our goals to shut down the square. We shut down M&I Bank. It's not "business as usual" in Wisconsin anymore.

Hopefully, the state legislators will finally figure it out--that what they are voting on is affecting and hurting real people in their districts. They can't just be getting marching orders from somebody out of state saying "you need to do this or that" to help the rich get richer.

Firefighters lend their support during renewed protests in Madison against Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget
Firefighters lend their support during renewed protests in Madison against Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget (Katie Zaman | SW)

THIS ACTION was initiated by local unions. Why wasn't it organized with the larger statewide unions like previous large rallies?

I THINK the larger statewide unions and national unions have put all of their marbles in the recall elections.

The people who are actually going to be taking a hit money-wise and with their union rights really aren't putting a lot of stock in the recall elections. Because it doesn't fix the things that they've just broken--like voter suppression, like the concealed carry law and things like that.

This was more of a grassroots effort at the local level--a coalition of students and activists, nurses, teachers, firefighters, farmers. It's run-of-the-mill people who are standing up and calling themselves to arms. You don't have to wait for somebody else to direct you to do this. You can do it yourself.

You don't have to have thousands of people. You don't have to have somebody else telling you this is the time to show up and this is the time not to show up. You can do it yourself. You need to come on up to the Capitol. Come talk to your legislator and get your issues heard.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Wisconsin trade unionists and other activists at Socialism 2011 in Chicago, speaking at the panel meeting, "Wisconsin: The end of the one-sided class war." Check out the Socialism 2011 website for more details.

WHAT DO you think it's going to take to push back against Scott Walker and the Republicans? Do you think there's a way to win?

THERE IS a way to win in the long term, and that's through education. That's through the actual electoral process. We will probably lose this battle--there's no doubt about it.

But people, once they get affected by this budget, are going to start educating themselves and they are going to start looking at candidates in a different light. So this is going to turn around through the political process.

Maybe there will be a whole new political party that comes out of this. There is no reason why it's just the Republicans and the Democrats. You need a party out there that is supportive of the people. And we are the people. Everybody has their own issue. But the one issue they have in common is they want to be heard.

WHAT ROLE does the labor movement have to play in this?

THE LABOR movement has to evolve, just like the political landscape has to evolve. The labor movement has to change from a top-down structure to taking care of workers. A lot of them lost perspective in who they represent. We need to get that back.

There used to be a tradition in the labor movement where the unions saw themselves as part of whole communities: They organized the unorganized. They organized the unemployed. They really involved themselves in social issues. It seems like the labor movement has turned away from that.

DO YOU see that as something that is going to change through the evolution of this movement?

I THINK that has great value. You have to build those coalitions with the rest of the community.

We did it in Madison. We do community actions. We're not raising money to give off to some big charity someplace else. If a kid gets hurt in a car accident and his glasses get broken, he goes to the hospital, and his family can't buy another set of glasses--we go out and buy a set of glasses for him. And it's things like that where you're touching people in the community and actually helping them out. That's our role.

As firefighters, we're on duty 24-7. We may not be in the fire station, but if we come across something that we can help, that's what we are going to do. I think that's what the labor movement has to do. We can't just look at it like I'm only representing my members.

There are other businesses out there that need to be organized. There are other corporations that need to be organized. Those workers are suffering at the hands of people who really don't care about them--who really aren't looking out for their best interests. They're looking out for the bottom dollar. That's what the role of labor was years ago--to make sure that the people who were providing the services and making the money for those companies got their share.

DO YOU think this movement will encourage more internal organizing in the unions, rather than acceptance of a top-down structure that we've seen lately?

YOU NEED true grassroots leaders. Not people who are elected to be in a position, but leaders who are in the different locations--the different shops, the different fire stations, different workplaces. True leaders to actually get the message out, and to get people to have faith in their union again.

You know money is great, but you need bodies--you need feet on the ground--to get that organizing done. You can't just hand out fliers. You can't just make phone calls. You have to have people telling stories and saying, "This is what the union has done for me."

WHAT MOTIVATED you to become a union activist?

I COME from a family of union activists. My father was president of the Madison firefighters for a number of years. I was nine years old when they went out on strike here in Madison. I went to school at the University of Wisconsin to learn more about the labor movement.

I could have been a fire chief, but I decided to stay in the rank and file. I think I can better serve our members there. I like it where you're fighting for the underdog. I like bringing people up to where they should be, instead of keeping people down. I think that's what gets most people motivated to do union work. And hopefully, some of those people who had that fire back when they were younger will get it back again.

Transcription by Sarah Lynne

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