Report from the battle of Wisconsin

This is a report from a Madison comrade, who has been heavily involved with the protests there. He makes great observations on the culture of the protests, how such movements are organized, contradictions between the labor bureaucracy and rank-and-file workers, and all kinds of other stuff you definitely won’t learn about in the mainstream media. This was written late Thursday, February 17.

First, I think we’re all shocked at what’s happening here. There’s obviously been a build-up to this point, a few test battles in union-busting public sector workers and of course the (democratic) legislature stalling out and then rejecting state contracts, but the pace at which things have proceeded this week is mindblowing. Walker introduced the bill on Friday with intent to get it passed Wednesday, which pissed people off even more than the contents of the bill already had.

Second, protests have definitely gone above and beyond what union leadership had planned. Monday’s action was called by the graduate student union (TAA) to deliver valentines to the governor, “I love my university, don’t break my heart”, followed by a strict lobbying plan. The day then kind of fizzled. Tuesday was intended to be the same but bigger, but things blew up when firefighters showed up despite being exempt from the cuts and high school students walked out of class as well.

Then there was a community forum that encouraged militancy, and as rallies kept the capitol packed throughout the night, students and workers somewhat spontaneously decided to sleep in at the capitol and keep public testimonies going all night long. The TAA initially was against it because they want to appear as good partners to make things work, but have since embraced it and then called for another sleep-in the following night.

Madison Teachers soft struck by sicking-out on Wednesday, though not an official union action, and it forced school closures in the city; shortly after WEAC (NEA affiliate for Wisconsin teachers) announced Wisconsin teachers would not show up to work Thursday and Friday to be part of demonstrations.

The union bureaucracy has been lagging behind workers here. The number of handmade signs are roughly equal to mass produced placards, with all kinds of witty takes on pop culture and Wisconsin traditions, but the actions workers are taking are definitely directing how things are shaping up here. The official program of speakers were the same two days in a row—which I think says that unions were expecting a different crowd of people to come for lobbying either day.

In their meeting this morning, the AFL-CIO were prepared for a loss, but the mood of workers here is increasingly confident as private sector unions and skilled trades have stuck it out for the last few days. Now it seems like unions are ready to invest in this fight; presidents of the internationals of the NEA and AFSCME were in town today, and its rumored that Trumka and Jesse Jackson will be here tomorrow.

The mood is increasingly confident and the sense of solidarity here is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Madison feels radically different and working class issues have hegemony for the moment–a few examples: two plumbers in the bathroom talking to each other, “This isn’t about parties, its about the working class,”; walking downtown people all over are watching tv reports in the streets and discussing what this means for working people while cars honk approvingly at AFSCME members crossing the walk.

Firefighters in uniform led demonstrators by bagpipe to a municipal building to get support for a motion to ratify municipal contracts now should the bill pass; they were cheered the whole way through. At the capitol tonight, workers chanted “We are Wisconsin!” and “Union!”, and to me they’re speaking about the kind of unionism represented by the solidarity in the room, not just collective bargaining.

Signs are everywhere in support of the public unions, and businesses that want solicitation have all catered to workers in one way or another. Even emails from liberal-progressive groups I get daily are taking a very different turn, coming out strongly for workers and looking for ways to empower the unions. WORT, the community station, has been covering the bill and the protests around the clock, airing testimonies of workers and most all of their music is labor or struggle themed.

Lastly, things are getting more militant day by day. Monday was sleepier, Tuesday was people finding each other and feeling it out, bolstered by students and firefighters, Wednesday more support (now from cops, too!) and experimentation and today chants are turning to calls for Walker’s removal, direct action and no compromises (“Kill the bill!”).

Since legislators have fled the state and broken quorum, there is a little more wiggle room to plan something and we’re hoping to build confidence to keep things going and encourage strikes or other job actions if the bill makes it through—my sense is that workers are livid and they want this thing dead, period. Wednesday night there was an exchange outside the finance committee where someone came out to silence the chanting, “Be quiet so we can amend this thing for you,” which was countered with, “We don’t want an amendment, kill the bill!”

So that’s the gist of it. Who knows if we’ve hit the peak or if tonight’s sleep-in will have more networking among unionists, students and other workers that will lead to more militancy.

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