The bottom-up rebellion in Wisconsin

March 8, 2012
Part 1

One year ago last winter, a revolt against a union-busting Republican governor swept through the state of Wisconsin--and the image of the U.S. as immune from mass protest and in the thrall of Tea Party reactionaries was swept away in a matter of days.

Walker's attack sparked a mobilization of the union movement unseen in the U.S. in decades--and one that embraced countless individuals and organizations with no formal connection to labor. What began as protests by students and rank-and-file unionists and a sick-in by teachers in the capital city of Madison mushroomed into an occupation of the state Capitol building and daily demonstrations across the state and around the country. In the end, Walker got away with his union-busting legislation, but the impact of the battle in Wisconsin endures.'s Lee Sustar reported from Madison throughout the rebellion in Wisconsin. He has written a chapter for a book edited by Michael Yates titled Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back. We're publishing that chapter--this selection is the first in a three-part series.

IT WAS another day, another demonstration in the midst of Wisconsin's dramatic, nearly month-long labor mobilization against anti-union legislation. But the protest that took place March 1 was different.

The unions, following a 100,000-strong protest on Saturday, February 26, had broken down their soundstage and dropped the twice-daily rallies that had become a focus of national attention. Days earlier, union officials had--according to the chief of the Capitol Police--collaborated with authorities as the police ended the occupation of the building that had been a focus of activism.[1] Union leaders apparently believed that they had made their point by mobilizing masses of people to Madison, and that Republican Governor Scott Walker would sit down to negotiate a compromise, as even Wisconsin's previous Republican governors had done.

Instead, Walker pressed ahead with legislation that would gut the unions' membership and finances as well as eliminate meaningful collective bargaining. So when the governor prepared to give his budget address at the capitol building in Madison, as required by state law, thousands turned out to protest, even though no union or organization had called for any action.

Thus as union members gathered that afternoon--in what had become the usual gamut of teachers, firefighters, social workers, highway repair crews, electrical workers, and more--the union officials who had presided over previous protests were nowhere to be seen. The sound system that had made speeches on the capitol steps audible from several blocks away was gone. The only amplified speeches this day came via the small loudspeaker belonging to the University of Wisconsin's Teaching Assistant's Association (TAA), whose members offered an open mike for anyone who wished to speak.

But rank-and-file union members had organized themselves to get to the capitol anyway. They were determined that Walker's budget speech would not go unchallenged. Many were private sector workers who had seen their own wages and benefits cut--and often, jobs eliminated--in recent years. Among them was Jerry Thompson, who had been a pipefitter at the now-closed Janesville plant operated by General Motors. "I've been a card carrying member of a union for fifty-two years," he said, but he'd never seen anything like the protests in Madison. "I am retired but I want to be here because of solidarity."

Madison teachers, who had returned to work the previous week following their sickout, were also scattered throughout the crowd. It was part of the union's tradition, explained teacher Joan Shahrani. "We have always been concerned about teachers' rights."

SUDDENLY, AROUND 4 p.m., the crowd--furious at a police lockdown of the capitol and the isolation of the few-dozen protesters still occupying the building--surged forward, tearing through the orange plastic safety fence set up that day to keep protesters away from the northwest entrance. About a dozen Wisconsin state troopers, alarmed, sprinted toward the main door to the capitol, racing demonstrators who were determined to get there first. In the scuffle that ensued, one trooper was visibly shocked to find himself squaring off against Ben Gall, a hardhat-wearing member of Ironworkers Local 8 in Milwaukee, as scores of others tried pushing their way into the capitol.

The dozens of police officers posted inside the entrance finally managed to get the doors closed, and the two shaken troopers who had been stranded outside nervously threaded their way through a crowd that was pounding the doors, chanting, "Whose house? Our house!"

Gall was asked if the police had roughed him up. The compact but powerfully built ironworker said simply, "I don't get pushed around."[2] He was angry, he said, because "Scott Walker kicked us out of our house," referring to the end of the occupation two days earlier. "This is a union-busting thing."

Gall's Local 8 veteran union brother, Ron Moore, explained why the two men, like many other workers in the building trades, had made the trip to Madison that day despite the absence of any official call to action. "All we have, this is it. Right here. This is the epicenter for the working person's future."

After the shoving match with state troopers, the marchers gathered around and discussed what do. Word came that a bigger crowd was protesting outside the door on the opposite side of the capitol. TAA members carrying the sound system led the crowd in a brief march around the building, where they found other groups of union workers and supporters using the steps to the eastern entrance as a stage. The TAA loudspeaker was again opened up to anyone who cared to address the hundreds gathered nearby while thousands more milled around the capitol building.

Steve Tippel, president of Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin Local 1440, in the North Shore suburbs of Milwaukee, took the microphone. Speaking clearly but not shouting, he soon commanded the raucous crowd's attention. He took his union card from his wallet and held it aloft. He'd got that card on his first day on the job eighteen years earlier, he said. Ever since, it had meant solidarity, dignity, and mutual support. That is what the struggle in Wisconsin was about to him, and other firefighters who'd driven across the state that day, he said.

"We've made the trip up here almost every day in support of union rights," Tippel said after his speech. "We may be exempt from this bill, and we are grateful for that," he continued, referring to the exclusion of firefighters and police from the collective bargaining ban, which many believed was payback for the Milwaukee firefighters' union endorsement of the Republican in the 2010 governor's race. "However," Tippel added, "we are not in favor of anyone losing their right to collectively bargain."[3]

If members of Tippel's local could identify with other public sector workers facing cuts, it was in part because they had already experienced some painful concessions themselves. A year earlier, Local 1440 agreed to reduce minimum staffing from twenty-nine to twenty-seven firefighters per day, down from thirty when the North Shore fire district was organized in 1995. That made it all the easier for the members of his local--like other firefighters from around the state--to identify with public sector workers who were in Walker's crosshairs. Asked if he thought the governor's attacks would spark job actions, he said: "Whenever you back someone into a corner, don't underestimate what they're capable of doing."

THE LEADERLESS March 1 protest highlighted a key dynamic of the Wisconsin revolt. It was a groundswell by almost every sector of organized labor, not just by public sector workers directly targeted by the legislation, but by their counterparts who worked for private employers as well. The action was driven at first by fear and anger and then sustained by the inspiration from solidarity and mass action that went beyond the plans of union officials. Indeed, labor leaders often had to scramble throughout the nearly month-long protest to provide leadership to a movement that transcended organized labor to mobilize tens of thousands of non-union workers and students.

Thus when union leaders hesitated to take the fight forward March 1 and for several days afterward, a central question came to the fore: Who were the leaders of this fight, and what was their aim? Was defense of collective bargaining the only issue, or was this a challenge to economic concessions as well? Was the goal to use workers' power to block Walker's anti-union legislation, or was the mobilization simply a pressure tactic for the unions' negotiators? If the bill were to be passed, should labor use job actions and strikes to fight back? Or should unions accept legislative defeat and turn to long-term electoral remedies?

Labor militants, and activists and community groups had already been grappling with those issues when top union officials abandoned the protests February 26, so they didn't hesitate to take the initiative in organizing their own actions.[4] That put pressure on Wisconsin's main public sector unions, which called another 100,000-strong protest--the biggest, and last, demonstration on March 12. But that demonstration came a day after Walker had signed the anti-union bill into law. With the implementation of the law delayed in the courts, labor leaders used the protest to redirect the movement into an unsuccessful effort to mount recall elections of eight of Wisconsin's Republican state senators and install a Democratic majority in that chamber. While another large labor demonstration May 16 provided a coda, the mass union mobilizations came to an end, their goals unmet.

Further discussion of the character of the demonstrations can be found elsewhere in this book. The subject here is the conditions that laid the basis for the transition from protest to mobilization, and from demonstration to occupation. For although Walker's attack on public sector bargaining rights sparked the mobilization, the resistance immediately gathered mass support from unionized workers in the private sector, too--workers who had taken devastating concessions themselves in a series of recent contracts. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the breadth and depth of the working-class mobilization in Wisconsin without taking into account the scale of the corporate rollback of decades of gains in what had been bedrocks of the state's industrial union strength, as well as a previous series of attacks on public sector employees.

This essay will also look at how different currents in the labor movement developed during the struggle. It will focus on the attempt to create a network of union members and supporters who rejected top union leaders' calls to separate labor's issues from the broader fight over Walker's austerity budget as well as union leaders' repeated offers to accept all of the economic concessions demanded by Walker in exchange for maintaining collective bargaining rights. These activists focused instead on organizing a labor-student-community alliance that could challenge the wider attacks on working people, both those carried out by Walker and employers in the state.


Many Wisconsin activists generously shared their experiences with me to help write this article. I would like to thank in particular the following individuals for their comments on an earlier draft: Eric Cobb, Joe Conway, Mike Imbrogno, Sam Jordan and Eric Robson.

1. Elizabeth Schulte and Lee Sustar, "Solidarity City,", February 28, 2011.

2. Interview with Ben Gall and Ron Moore, March 1, 2011.

3. Interview with the author, March 1, 2011.

4. Phil Gasper, "What Comes Next in Wisconsin?", March 7, 2011.

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