When we took a stand in Wisconsin

July 28, 2016

All eyes were on the Capitol building in Madison in February 2011, as Wisconsin workers battled Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to take away public-sector union rights and impose deep budget cuts and austerity measures. Students, workers, the unemployed and others affected by Walker's agenda protested at the state Capitol, occupying the building to prevent the legislature from passing legislation, deceptively called a "Budget Repair Bill," that would, among other things, gut collective bargaining rights.

In a contagious spirit of defiance and solidarity, many Wisconsin workers linked their fight with the Egypt rebellion that had succeeded in overthrowing dictator Hosni Mubarak just weeks before--signs like "Protest like an Egyptian" could be found on all the demonstrations.

Five years later, Wisconsin workers are feeling the impact of Walker's draconian policies, which prevailed despite the pitched struggle in the Capitol that was ultimately undermined by a failed Democratic Party-led effort to unseat Walker in a recall election. But the struggle itself holds important lessons for rebuilding our unions and organizing against austerity today.

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, who a graduate student in UW's Sociology department and a steward in the Teaching Assistants' Association at the time of the Wisconsin uprising, was interviewed in June 2011 by the journal Labor History. Here, we print excerpts from that unpublished interview.

WHAT WERE expectations of Gov. Scott Walker when he first took office at the start of 2011? Did people expect him to attack unions?

WALKER'S MAIN campaign promise was to create 250,000 new jobs. It was clear that he was a Tea Party conservative--he campaigned against the proposed high-speed rail around the Midwest, and canceling it was his first action after being elected--but it was not at all apparent how sweepingly he intended to remake the state's labor laws.

Signs saying things like, "I voted for Walker and I regret it" were fairly common sights at the protests. I think many people skipped the midterm elections [in 2010, when Walker won office] out of frustration with the economy and with the Democrats' failures--locally and nationally--to mitigate its effects, including by doing more to combat unemployment.

In the aftermath of Walker's full agenda becoming very clear and being so actively opposed, it's fair to say that the state is deeply polarized.

WHAT WAS the first response to his proposal to restrict collective bargaining?

The occupied Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison
The occupied Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison (Carole Ramsden | SW)

VERY QUICKLY after the Budget Repair Bill was announced, many people understood that Walker was attempting to end public-sector unions as we know them in the state. Walker announced the bill on February 11--the same night Mubarak resigned, a combination that made for a surreal mix of elation and dread for many of the activists I know.

That first weekend, small, mostly spontaneous protests began. The neighbor of an activist I know decided on his own to put up signs calling for a protest at Walker's house on February 13; 75 people came.

The next day, Valentine's Day, was already scheduled for a protest organized by my union, the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA), against the budget cuts to the university we were expecting in Walker's full budget.

In the wake of Walker's bill announcement, 1,000 students turned up. At the time, this seemed large. Over the weekend, the state AFL-CIO and other public-sector unions had called for statewide protests at the Capitol on the Tuesday and Wednesday of that week. A few tens of thousands turned out.

But by Wednesday, two other crucial things had happened. The occupation of the state Capitol had begun, and teachers in Madison had shut down schools with the first "sick-out," an action that would shortly spread around the state with the support of the statewide Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC).

In this context, unions called subsequent daily protests, and every component of the "Wisconsin uprising"--the mass rallies; the Capitol occupation; the sick-outs; and the massive community support--developed a momentum that I think it's fair to say none of us had anticipated.

I want to emphasize the significance of the sick-outs. These played several crucial roles in that first week.

First, they posed very clearly the questions about public-sector workers. On one side, Walker and the Fitzgeralds portrayed public-sector workers as the lazy, overpaid "haves" to private-sector "have-nots." [The Fitzgeralds are brothers Jeff Fitzgerald, the State Assembly Speaker; Scott Fitzgerald, the State Senate Majority Leader; and their father Stephen Fitzgerald, appointed by Walker to head the Wisconsin State Patrol. They are probably third to the Koch brothers and, of course, Walker himself in being the focus of protesters' ire.]

The sick-outs forced teachers to articulate why they were protesting instead of teaching; it also brought out thousands of their students to support them. The Saturday following the sick-outs, Madison high school students turned up at their closed schools so they could "walk out" and march to the Capitol together again.

I met many Black students from Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha, as well as students from Madison. They spoke about supporting their teachers and also about feeling that politicians weren't supporting their educations.

One of the many small, moving moments of those first weeks was when a student walkout contingent of a few thousand high school and college students marched up to the Capitol where teachers had ringed the building. As we walked around the Capitol chanting, "Thank you, teachers," they would chant-respond, "Thank you, students."

Whenever the teachers spoke, the emotional subtext was that in the face of widespread demonization, they were asserting their dignity and pride in what they do. I think this really influenced the public impression of teachers and of public-sector workers more generally.

This assertion of dignity and pride in work helped make the protests a much larger issue in the state. The more the protests escalated, the more information came out about what was actually in the bill, and the more people learned about the bill, the more they disliked it.

Second, the sick-outs made it clear to everyone that these protests weren't perfunctory--that the opposition to Walker's bill was not "business as usual." The sick-outs made the protests seem like a plausible vehicle for opposition to Walker's agenda, to the lack of democracy and the corporatization of the state.

The defense of democratic processes was important in pushing people who might otherwise have privately opposed the bill, but not taken any action against it, to take their own stand. One of the things that many of us in Madison found most difficult to convey to others elsewhere was the extent to which our city felt like the people against Walker.

For weeks, every conversation I had--at coffee shops, on the bus, at the doctor's office--revolved around Walker and the protests. I got a "protester's discount" on almost everything I bought, which wasn't much since so much donated food was pouring into the Capitol.

There was a tremendous sense of unity between public-sector workers, private-sector unionized workers, non-union workers, students, young unemployed people and retirees, and a sense that we were all standing together for democracy and basic human decency.

I don't know that we would have achieved this broad community support if the teachers hadn't decisively established early on that these were far beyond the normal Madison protests. And as the protests increasingly took on this character of a broad mobilization, I imagine that helped to turn more people against the bill as well.

Finally, the fact that all of this was achieved with a labor stoppage meant that from the beginning, the idea of stopping work as a form of power was a strategy to be debated. This was reflected in the February 21 vote of the AFL-CIO federation, the South Central Federation of Labor, to "prepare" for a general strike in the event that the Budget Repair Bill passed, and in the widespread hopes for a general strike that, of course, didn't materialize.

There's a great irony in this. The night that the bill passed the State Senate, many of us occupied the State Assembly overnight to try to prevent them from passing the bill the next day. Early in our sit-in, a long line of Democratic staffers and NGO staffers came to tell us to leave, asking us to "think about what this will look like."

My response was that if we could turn our minds back three weeks earlier to before the protests began, it would be hard to come up with a protest that would "look worse" than teachers across the state staying home and forcing schools closed with no notice. But in fact, in my view, those sick-outs played the most important role in creating the initial momentum for our side.

By all the standard logic, they should have turned people off, but instead, many people were won over.

WHO DECIDED to sit in at the Capitol building?

THE CAPITOL occupation evolved from a strategy to filibuster the bill. Wisconsin requires public hearings before bills are voted on. The hearing on the Budget Repair Bill was scheduled for February 15, the first day of statewide protests.

The TAA, in discussion with other unions, decided to pack the hearings and extend them as long as possible. TAA members and other students were asked to come in the evening with sleeping bags for what was billed as a "sleepover" to testify--not, officially, as an occupation.

Our goal at that point was to keep the hearings going until the next morning, when we would be reinforced by union members arriving from around the state. Since each person could only testify once, for two minutes, this plan relied on large numbers of people staying to testify in the middle of the night.

When the Republicans tried to cut off the testimony at 10 p.m., we occupied the hallways outside the hearing room and chanted until they backed down and testimony began again. What made this possible was that members of many other unions had poured in all day long to testify, so it wasn't just students protesting.

In this context, when the Republicans walked out for good around 2 a.m., the Democrats decided to stay and continue what were then, without the Republican majority, unofficial hearings. We continued testifying--now without time limits, eliminating the danger of running out of speakers--and a couple hundred of us slept over. That's how the occupation began. It would continue for 16 days, and then resume for one night when the bill passed.

Much of the testimony was absolutely riveting. Often, you could see people beginning to reframe what had been experienced as individual failings into, instead, something being done to us. Teachers who had kept secrets from their colleagues that they were on food stamps testified about it publicly.

WHAT GOALS did the first protesters have? Did they see a path from protest to defeating the governor's plans?

IN THE beginning, I think everyone believed it might be possible to negotiate a deal that would strike the collective bargaining provisions of the bill and pass the rest, and the strategies of both the unions' leadership and its critics on the left were framed around this possibility.

For their part, unions promised to grant every economic concession Walker asked for if they could keep collective bargaining. A very common chant for the first two weeks was, "It's not about the money; it's about the rights!" (Though if you started chanting in response, "It's about the money, too!" many workers who'd been doing the first chant would come thank you and tell you about how scared they were about what would happen to them if they had to live with Walker's cuts.)

The theory was that this stance gave unions the moral high ground and exposed Walker's claim to care only about fixing the deficit.

Some of us argued that this approach was a strategic mistake, for several reasons. First, it reinforced the idea that budget cuts were a necessary response to a deficit crisis instead of exposing how that crisis had been manufactured.

Second, focusing solely on collective bargaining threatened to weaken what was perhaps the protests' greatest strength: their solidarity. The Budget Repair Bill contains significant attacks on social services including BadgerCare, the state low-income health care system.

These BadgerCare attacks are one reason that rural farmers from around the state joined the protests--forming a "Tractorcade" around the Capitol--and also prompted disability rights activists to occupy the state GOP office early in the protests, an action that received sadly little attention.

The bill also ends the early release program for prisoners, which, particularly in the state that has the second greatest racial disparities in sentencing, is a significant attack on Wisconsin's Black communities. And, of course, the repair bill was only the prelude to a budget that, among other things, cuts nearly $900 million from state K-12 schools and mandates charter school funding, and to a slew of other measures attacking Wisconsin's undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable communities.

So by limiting the fight to collective bargaining, unions risked undermining the significant support they were receiving from private-sector and non-union workers.

Finally, if unions concede all the economic issues at stake for workers, it's not clear how committed workers will remain to their unions (although Walker's attacks certainly increased respect for unions among many unionized and non-unionized workers in Wisconsin, at least in the short term).

A few union leaders expressed these concerns, including Joe Conway, the president of the firefighters' union, which played a significant role in the protests despite being exempted from Walker's bill. But for the most part, labor's focus remained on maintaining its own collective bargaining rights.

As it became apparent that Walker's intransigence would prevent any deal, unions rushed to pass contracts by any means necessary, on the principle that this would at least preserve dues collection--and the unions' survival--for the length of the contracts. Unions hope that before these contracts run out, recall elections will replace the Republican majority--and maybe even Walker himself, after he becomes eligible next spring--and collective bargaining rights can be restored.

The problem is that this recall strategy has been systematically counterposed to strategies of putting mass pressure on Walker on the state, through escalating protests and labor actions. This was most dramatically apparent when the bill passed, though it has been reinforced by unions' failure to mobilize in any organized way for virtually every protest since then.

When the Budget Repair Bill, stripped of certain provisions so that it could pass without needing the absent Senate Democrats for quorum, passed the State Assembly, thousands of people rushed to re-occupy the Capitol.

By the time the bill passed the Senate and was slated to pass the Assembly the next day, there was widespread support for some form of escalation, including large-scale labor actions. My sense is that many workers were looking to teachers to lead the way, and that if the teachers or any other large group of workers had announced a sick-out for the next day, many other workers from many different unions would have followed.

The reason this didn't happen is that the teachers' union saw sick-outs as a threat to the contracts they were currently desperate to negotiate before the bill, now considered by them a foregone conclusion, passed.

The discussion among Madison Teachers Incorporated (MTI), the Madison teachers' union, has been described to me by teachers as an hours-long, highly emotional debate in which the MTI and WEAC leaders argued that the sick-outs had alienated parents in the state and teachers stood to lose everything if they took further action and undermined the contract MTI was negotiating.

In a context of great fear, Madison teachers voted by 10 votes not to sick-out the next day. Individual unionists protested, including a sit-in, but there was no organized labor action of any kind.

WHAT WAS it like inside the protest? How were people maintained? Fed? Bathed?

THE PROTESTERS developed a highly organized system for maintaining the building. Over time, the building came to include a well-organized first aid station; a family center; norms about how the central microphones would be shared and when noise would stop to allow sleep; and an extensive trash pickup, recycling and cleaning operation.

The food operation was one of the enduring symbols of the protest. Donations came from literally around the world, including Egypt, Iran and Antarctica. Much of this infrastructure was maintained by students and young, unemployed workers, although other union workers also played very important roles.

When it seemed like the occupation might flag and we feared that dwindling numbers of protesters might be pushed out by police in the night, the firefighters took a turn staying overnight to protect the occupation, inspiring some other workers to do the same on subsequent nights.

WHAT WERE relations like with the Capitol police?

THE RELATIONSHIP with the police was definitely one of the most interesting, and contradictory, aspects of the protests. Police, like firefighters, were exempted from Walker's attacks, but many joined the protests, carrying signs like "Cops for Labor."

In part, this reflects that Madison is something of a company town, with the state being the "company." As the state Capitol and home to both a large university and a technical college serving as equal number of students, Madison is simply filled with state workers.

Many police officers are married to other state workers. Finally, the police were angered by a sense that Walker disrespected their professional role. At one point, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney pointedly told Walker that the police were not his "palace guard," and refused Walker's orders to have his troops keep the Capitol closed in violation of a court order.

However, the police who were tasked with clearing the building of protesters at various key points in the Capitol occupation, including Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs, were clearly prepared to use the goodwill the protesters had for them to maximize protester compliance. From the beginning, some protesters were prepared to challenge the police.

The first Thursday, before we were sure that all the Senate Democrats were over state lines, many of us sat in outside the Senate chambers to prevent the vote in case the Democrats were brought back. I sat next to an elementary school music teacher who introduced himself by saying, "I came to get arrested to stop the bill." Yet the police seemed determined not to arrest anyone, a stance that continued throughout the protests.

Much of the occupation was defined by a battle of wills as each side--the protesters and the police--vied to determine the "new normal" of operating rules in the building, each wanting to gain ground while fearful of escalating beyond what the other side was prepared to accept, since neither side wanted the occupation to end in unplanned mass arrests.

But in many other cases, we succeeded in changing the rules when accepting them would have fatally undermined the occupation. February 27 was a turning point because it was the first time the building was ordered closed. By this time, the leaders of most large unions already believed that the Capitol occupation had gone on long enough, and were looking for a way to pull the plug while declaring victory.

They arranged a planned civil disobedience in which most people would leave the building and pre-selected union members and clergy, wearing special T-shirts, would remain to be arrested without resistance. In preparation for this, a series of NGO and Democratic staffers took over the sound systems and urged people to leave the building.

Democratic State Rep. Brett Hulsey took the microphone where activists had been holding an open mic debate and delivered a 12-minute speech culminating, "And now I want you to do the most important thing in this campaign, which is to follow me out that door at 4 p.m." (This would not be the only time that Hulsey led people out of the occupation, though it may have been the only time he offered to spring for pizza as an incentive.)

However, small groups of activists, including some left organizations and some networks that had formed in the Capitol to create anti-racist nightly teach-ins in the building, urged people to stay and created a critical mass of activists who clearly planned to stay. The Capitol police announced that they would not clear the building that night after all, and the crowd was euphoric.

Nevertheless, that night was the beginning of the end of the Capitol occupation. The next morning, in violation of an explicit promise to protesters by Chief Tubbs, the Capitol police prevented anyone else from entering the building after most occupying activists had left for the morning.

For the next four days, dwindling numbers remained inside, unable to leave for fear of not getting back in, and unable to be reinforced by fresh forces. On March 3, after hours of debate, they marched out, chanting and singing.

Since then, the Capitol has been occupied on only one night: the night between when the bill passed the State Senate and would pass the State Assembly. That night, dozens of us stayed overnight to occupy the Assembly vestibule to try to prevent the vote. A consistent police strategy was to assure protesters that arrest was imminent so that protesters would leave, but then back down from arresting those who nevertheless stayed, and this night was no different.

Police and union officials traveled through the building telling activists that staying might result in six months in prison. This succeeded in convincing most people to leave, although a protester-organized open mic meeting did organize enough people to stay to at least protest symbolically the next day.

We assumed that we would be arrested. Instead, police dragged us out with no arrests. Pictures of this action became one of the major media moments of the protests, and this action, like the others that directly defied the police, was one that produced lasting bonds among protesters who had been strangers.

As they removed us, we appealed directly to the police, at least one of whom was crying. "You know what's right, and this isn't it!" we chanted, along with, "Be brave like a teacher: Sick-out!" Of course, regardless of their own feelings, they continued to carry out their orders.

HOW DID the protesters feel when the law was enacted?

CERTAINLY THE bill's passage was a major blow. Just as demoralizing has been the smaller size of the protests since unions have largely stopped participating in them in an organized way.

On the other hand, at the most recent protests I've participated in--which ranged from a rally of about 20,000 to an action of a couple hundred that temporarily shut down two banks--protesters have expressed a tremendous sense of relief at being back in the streets.

Building real rank-and-file networks taking action inside and outside of workplaces, and labor/community activism in solidarity with one another, is going to be a longer-term process, and it seems clear that some horrific bills are going to pass in the meantime.

But the networks that have formed out of the Capitol occupation and the surrounding protests put us a big step closer toward that than we have been in a very long time. As I write this, I'm frightened of what's in store for us, but also very hopeful about the prospects for the labor movement in Wisconsin.

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