Democracy is better in person

February 23, 2011

Jack Trudell, a nurse in Wisconsin and member of SEIU Local 1199WI, responds to an article by Paul Buhle on CounterPunch with his own assessment of the struggle against Gov. Scott Walker's assault on organized labor--written last Saturday after the biggest demonstration to date in and around the capitol building in Madison.

WHILE I almost always enjoy and learn from CounterPunch's coverage and analysis, I found Paul Buhle's dispatches from Madison surprisingly snarky. Maybe more time in the demonstrations and less at his insurance agent's office would've helped.

Admittedly, I'm biased. I'm a Madison native, and I've spent most of the past week chanting, marching and shuffling our two kids back and forth to the Capitol here, taking turns with my wife--a school social worker who's in the local teacher's union, Madison Teachers Inc., which has shut down Madison's schools for the past three days (for which every union supporter in this country should be grateful--without the teachers, this thing never would have taken off like it has, and they're taking a lot of heat, with more to come).

But there's a lot to be biased towards. The numbers themselves tell the story, from an ad-hoc picket of 80 people of the governor's mansion on February 13 (organized by a neighbor in just hours) to the massive demonstration of easily over 80,000 on February 19--which more than dwarfed the several hundred Tea Partiers who were bused in. At one point, the line for free brats to union supporters could've given the tea-baggers a serious run for their money.

Ironworkers join the mass protests to defend workers' rights in Madison
Ironworkers join the mass protests to defend workers' rights in Madison (Carole Ramsden)

Maybe more amazing has been the spirit, a hard-edged call for solidarity and defense of union rights smothered in a heaping hot-dish of Midwest nice. Thousands of people are faced with big pay cuts and the threat of losing any collective bargaining rights, but it doesn't feel defensive. Everyone is smiling, feeling like we're part of something really important.

And we are. I saw three little girls yesterday skipping in a circle, singing to themselves "Hey hey, ho ho, union-busting's got to go." For four days, the capitol has throbbed to the beat of drums and voices, as people chant and talk and pose for pictures with each other's signs--mine, which read "Hey Clay, Sack Walker," was a big favorite (Clay Matthews is an all-pro linebacker for the Packers, it's a Wisconsin thing). Three floors packed with people hanging over marble banisters with signs, bringing food, thanking each other, feeling like our side, finally, is taking up the fight.

It reminds me of when my high school--the Madison East Purgolders, I kid you not--made a surprise run to the state hockey finals my senior year. We knew we were woefully overmatched, but by God, we'd made it that far, and we were just happy to still be fucking standing.

AND THAT feeling's spreading. Groups of people at today's demonstration came from across the state, as well as Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan and Iowa. A local pizza parlor opened free to demonstrators, all you can eat (no small thing, here in Wisconsin) after they got donations to do so from hundreds of people in more than 30 states and as far away as South Korea. Also Egypt, whose revolution has been a constant source of inspiration here, reflected in signs and chants--and Walker's new nickname, Gov. Mubarak.

Sure, maybe so far, it's almost too wide-eyed, too nice. State AFSCME President Marty Beil drew nary a boo when he followed AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka's fiery address Friday by cringingly offering concessions in exchange for holding on to collective bargaining rights. There's been too much thanking of cops for the liking of anyone who's had any experience on the left. And little if any real criticism of the state Democrats, who've for years presided over a slower death by a thousand cuts.

And for certain, the powers that be are trying to get in front of it--Bill Clinton's rumored to be heading into town soon (hope he does more for us than he did for the Haitians), along with Jon Stewart (he'll surely be smirking at our cheeseheads). The capitol police and game wardens who have been inside the capitol thus far (and largely sympathetic--they stand to lose their unions, too) were replaced by scores of "volunteer" sheriff's deputies from out of town, who tightly controlled the doors.

The school district, formerly supportive, tried Friday to get an injunction prohibiting further teacher walkouts. Even my union, SEIU, actually managed a presence today, pressing us to get our purple T-shirts on and join in what they're still calling "lobbying."

Nonetheless, something's happening here on the frozen tundra. Something important that deserves better than potshots at the International Socialist Organization (whose members, by the way, have played a big role in the UW's Teaching Assistant Association and AFSCME Local 171's leadership in the demonstrations so far. And Lee Sustar's article at was outstanding--perhaps you should've run that.

Maybe a new left is being born. Maybe we'll have a general strike. Maybe this is ground zero for a new, reinvigorated labor movement in this country. Or maybe we're about to get trounced like my Purgolders of old.

But at least the lights are on in Wisconsin, and win or lose, things won't ever be the same. Fox News won't get it right, so CounterPunch damn well better. After all, this is my hometown we're talking about, and I couldn't be prouder of it.

P.S. The tundra's not really frozen--maybe now would be a good time for some of your readers to come visit. There's free pizza, all you can eat.

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