Wisconsin and the fighting badgers

March 22, 2011

GOING TO protest in Madison, Wis., changed my life.

It brought home the reality of class struggle and resistance in a way that, until now, I had only read about in history books. Sure, people cared about politics, challenged their governments' injustices and were sometimes even successful in making radical change in other far away places like Egypt, France and Venezuela. But here? I always understood that working-class fightback was a historical fact and possibility here in the U.S., but that it would actually happen? I always hoped it would, but hope is all I had to bank on.

This year will be remembered as a year of revolutions and resistance around the world. Only a few weeks into January 2011, we witnessed a revolution in Tunisia and, a couple weeks later, Egypt and after that, rebellion in Libya. By February, the resistance of ordinary people was spreading like wildfire throughout the Arab world.

U.S.-backed dictatorships that had maintained their domination for decades through brutal violence and repression were now being toppled through the mass struggles of ordinary people. Contrary to all the racist mythology manufactured by the corporate media and politicians about Arabs and Muslims, they were now showing the Western world how to win real "freedom" and "democracy"--through their own collective mass struggle.

But would it ever happen here? Before February could even came to an end, Madison, Wis.--the embodiment of "middle-America"--answered that question.

IN ONE way, what's happened in Wisconsin isn't very different from what's happening in states across the country. Six states, including Ohio and Indiana, are on the verge of passing copycat union-busting legislation. Tea Party lunatics are right--the federal government has accumulated a massive deficit. But that's where their accuracy stops.

The source of this debt is threefold: 1) a multitrillion-dollar bail out packages to keep Wall Street afloat, 2) a dramatic multitrillion-dollar increase in military spending over the past decade, and 3) a sharp reduction in taxation on corporations and the rich over the past 30 years.

Instead of looking at these undeniable facts, CNN, Fox News, and the New York Times like to place the blame on too much government spending toward "entitlement programs" such as welfare and Social Security, and those lazy greedy thugs we all know too well-librarians, teachers, firefighters and other public-sector workers. Last time I checked, it was George Bush, Barack Obama, and Congress that passed $700 billion-plus annual military spending bills, not University of Massachusetts (UMass) at Boston professors or Boston public school teachers.

So how do they propose to fix this enormous deficit? Dramatically cut spending on government-run programs (except the military, of course). Since federal funding for state governments is being cut dramatically and the Constitution prohibits states from running a deficit, they are required to cut anything and everything to balance their budget.

But hey, at least it's a shared sacrifice...for working-class and poor people, that is. Why would the rich need to suffer, especially when they're the ones who control our so-called "democracy"?

The idea that this country or any state is "broke" is a bald-faced lie. This is not shared sacrifice. Corporate America and the political elite of both parties are hoping to make working people pay for a crisis they've engineered. The money exists, and there's unimaginable amounts of it. It's just that some control it (the military, the prison system, the rich and corporations) while others (the rest of us) don't.

Since the mid-1970s, corporations have seen their profits increase by over 350 percent. At the same time, wages for working people have declined when inflation is take into account. This has occurred alongside a dramatic rise in the cost of living, resulting in a sharp increase of debt spending per household in order to just get by. This is the first time in U.S. history that our generation is expected to have a lower standard of living than a previous generation. There's been a one-sided class war for the past 35 years--and we've been losing.

Enter Wisconsin. Recently elected Tea Party Republican Gov. Scott Walker, with the support of the Republican-dominated legislature, brought forward a budget bill on February 11 that included dramatic cuts in spending toward education and other social services and would have resulted in widespread layoffs and serious cuts in wages and benefits for most public-sector employees.

But Walker's assault on working people generated a widespread and militant fightback, emerging from the grassroots level.

On February 15, the first of many mass labor protests in Madison began. The fight escalated when teachers in Madison called in sick to participate in protests at the Capitol building. Following suit, their parent union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), called for teachers to do the same across the state. This demonstration of workers' power inspired tens of thousands to come to the Capitol building and Madison on a daily basis to sustain the occupation inside, and ongoing protests outside.

But it wasn't just Madison that was effected. Cities and towns across the state, big and small, were erupting in protests and occupations as well. In response to the uprising, 14 Democratic state senators fled the state to block the bill from coming to a vote, bringing the legislature to a halt. Suddenly, the mainstream media in the U.S. and around the world was forced to cover the rebellion of working people against corporate power unfolding in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin was defying the logic of what we are constantly taught about how "politics" works--from the idea that change only comes about through elected officials to the idea that ordinary people are too preoccupied to get involved. It illustrated that class struggle is possible right here in America.

AFTER WALKER and the Republicans passed a version of the budget bill, focused on the repeal of collective bargaining rights, unions put out a call for a final day of mass demonstrations on Saturday March 12, which would turn our the be the largest action thus far, drawing out some 200,000 people.

This is where I come in. I was at the gym Wednesday night when I saw the breaking news on CNN "Wisconsin Senate eliminates collective bargaining." I rushed home to watch the live feed from Madison. I watched on my computer as people reoccupied the capitol building and converged on the city. I couldn't sleep.

Michael Moore was on the Rachel Maddow Show passionately calling this for what this is--"class war"--and arguing that this isn't just about Wisconsin, but a fight for all working people. He called on anyone and everyone who could to get the hell out there.

I was convinced. I had to go to Madison. Over the course of the next 24 hours, I talked to other students in the UMass Boston branch of the Intentional Socialist Organization (ISO), and we all agreed that we had to get to Madison. We got in touch with other ISO students at Hampshire College and UMass Amherst, reached out to friends and other student activists and organized a caravan of four cars with 18 people.

We left Friday afternoon and after an exhausting 24-hour car ride, with all our car windows decked out in paint exclaiming "Tax the Rich," "Honk for Labor" and "Solidarity," we finally arrived in Madison.

But we couldn't get there without stopping for some breakfast. When we got some food at an International House of Pancakes outside of Madison, the waitress asked us where we were from. When we told her we were college students from Boston coming to show our solidarity with Wisconsin labor, she turned around and announced it to the packed room. Customers and employees alike started clapping, and even came up to thank us and talk to us about what was happening in their state. It was unlike anything I've ever seen.

Once we got to the Capitol, it was already overflowing with people converging on the downtown from every direction. Everywhere you went, signs plastered the city. Nearly every storefront had signs reading "We Stand with Wisconsin Workers." Posters were plastered everywhere around the city exclaiming "Kill the Bill" and "Recall Walker." Even the sidewalks were covered in chalk with slogans of "Tax the Rich" and more.

By the time we reached downtown, we could barlee move--every street around the Capitol building was filled with people. Every time a car drove nearby, they were honking to the tune of "This is what democracy looks like!" People everywhere were spontaneously erupting into chants of "Union power! Union power!" and "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!"

As we walked down the street to meet up with a whole contingent of other ISO folks, something quickly stood out. This struggle had brought together women and men from all walks of life; teachers and students, firefighters and nurses, steelworkers and social workers, farmers and office workers, young and old, queer and straight, Black and white.

Everywhere you went, people were talking politics. You couldn't walk down the street or go into a bar without talking to people about what was unfolding in their state. After conversing with people, it was clear that protestors had come from all across the state, and sometimes even the country. Families were telling us about how 5,000 people in small rural towns of only 10,000 walked out of school and work to protest Walkers' bill or to come join the actions in Madison. According to local residents, stories like this were happening for weeks in towns and cities across the state. Not a single person we spoke to ever thought that they would be a part of something like this.

THE SENTIMENT at the rally was clear, we may have lost this battle, but the struggle has just begun. The biggest unions representing public sector workers in Wisconsin, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 24 (AFSCME) and the Wisconsin Education Association Council have already initiated a campaign to recall Gov. Walker and other Republican representatives in the coming months. After that, they hope to have a Democratic majority that would repeal the bill.

Unfortunately, throughout the rebellion in Wisconsin, the union leadership has made clear its willingness to accept most if not all of the proposed concessions and cuts to workers, as long as collective bargaining remained in place. Despite the union rank and file's strong sentiment for further militant action, like a general strike, in addition to a recall strategy, the union leadership did not push in that direction.

Instead, the union bureaucracy worked tooth and nail to prevent further action from the grassroots, going as far as calling on it's members not to strike and to end the Capitol building occupation. If the past two years of the Obama administration has proven anything, it's that we can't wait on Democratic politicians to make the change we desperately need-we have to go fight for it ourselves.

Newly formed grassroots organizations that formed during the course of the struggle like the No Cuts No Concessions/Kill the Whole Bill Coalition are continuing to organize and strategize among union members about how to move forward in challenging the attacks that lay ahead. Once the legislature reconvenes in April, the first matter of business will be passing a new budget bill that will undoubtedly include massive cuts and further attacks on working people.

The past two months have demonstrated that if union rights are to be protected and the budget cuts prevented, it will only be through mass direct action of the union rank and file. What will happen in the future, no one can predict. But what became clear on Saturday is that the people of Wisconsin will never be the same. Through recognizing and experienced their own collective power, they've been permanently changed.
Keegan O'Brien, Boston

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