When media outlets and unions were hopeful that there were signs of compromise from Gov. Scott Walker Wednesday night in Wisconsin, instead Walker and Wisconsin state Republicans pulled an unexpected move and decided to divide the collective bargaining rights from the economic parts of his Budget Repair Bill so that the Senate could vote without the quorum needed. They voted in 18 minutes to pass the bill denying public workers collective bargaining rights they have held for 50 years.
In no time thousands of protesters, perhaps until then subdued by weeks of marching and waiting, were fired up by the extreme action and returned just as quickly. By 10:30 PM there were more people packed in the capitol than any other day since the protests began more than three weeks ago. Today students and activists tried to block entry to the Assembly chambers and police and highway patrol officers physically dragged many out. This is by far the most confrontational action yet by law enforcement. Union officials told workers to go to work today, and urged protesters not to occupy the capitol against the wishes of law enforcement, but protesters are even less inclined than ever, and very few people have been removed from the building entirely.
While there is a lot of talk of a general strike, but last night the Madison teachers, who closed the schools for three days in a sick out, voted last night to go to work, and no other unions officially or “unofficially” called for sick outs. Madison high school students bolstered the numbers inside and outside the capitol when they walked of their schools and marched to defend they see as an attack on teachers and education.
Last weekend was the third week of Wisconsin's popular uprising and there were crowds on Saturday of between 30,000 and 70,000 people. This was on a cold day with little turnout from any union or progressive organization. I personally found out about the rally through Facebook. Like the two weekends before, delegations of union members did arrive, IBEU, APU (the Milwaukee transit workers union), the Laborers, Teamsters and many more groups from around the mid west arrived to infuse energy into the local crowds. But as usual, and often ignored in the mainstream media, tens of thousands of local and out of town Wisconsin residents also came to the capitol to show their opposition to Governor Walker, and his Budget Repair Bill. They arrived in Green Bay Packers and University of Wisconsin jackets, hats and ear warmers with their homemade signs and posters.
In what is now a tradition in the three weeks of Wisconsin protests, the firefighters marched to the Capitol from their firehouse a few blocks away. They have shown up every day since the protests began and, even though they are exempt from the bill, they have voiced their opposition to Walkers attacks on unions. This Saturday, I waited in the firehouse and watched people arrive, on buses from out of town, and by foot. Some were from Beloit, and Green Bay, but most are Madison local firefighters. The firefighters can always pull together a big contingent for moral support on short notice, for example when access is being limited in the capitol, and then they are a key part of the big weekend rallies.
This time firefighters and families gathered for the 2 pm rally, where a special guest was arriving from the airport on short notice. Michael Moore got in touch with organizers in the early hours of the day to say he wanted to visit Madison. The AFL-CIO didn't want Moore to speak at their event Moore marched instead with the firefighters, and gave an inspiring speech at the rally opposite from the AFL-CIO organized by Madison activist and Green Party member Ben Mansky, meaning there were competing rallies on opposite sides of the capitol building.
As the firefighters marched up to the capitol building the buzz grew about Moore being in town and by the time the group got to the stage, a big majority of protesters had moved over to that stage from all over the square, and away from the competing rally. Moore gave an inspiring speech that connected the Wall Street bailout to the attack on public workers, all part of the concerted effort to consolidate wealth in the hands of the few in the U.S. As usual he had more than few funny zingers in his speech. He said he was there to expose the three big lies: Weapons of mass destruction, Wisconsin is broke, and the Green Bay Packers needed Brett Favre to win the Superbowl. When he said, "Money doesn't grow on trees", the crowd shouted back "Except palm trees!" This in reference to Fox News using footage of confrontational union members protesting to represent Wisconsin, with noticeably warmer weather and palm trees in the background (people began to bring inflatable Palm trees to the protests this weekend). He made sure to point out that he isn't used to seeing Democrats show this much backbone, as the 14 Democratic state senators who fled the capitol to break the quorum, and continue to stay out of state.
Michael Moore’s appearance was a big morale boost for the protesters, especially appearing alongside the firefighters who are the most loved and appreciated labor group at the protests. They always greeted with “Thank you” chants and handshakes every day when they march in and around the Capitol building. Moore’s appearance put the Madison protests back in the national headlines, with leading stories from Yahoo News, The Daily Beast, and the Huffington Post on Sunday among others. Moore’s absence at the AFL-CIO’s rally was baffling to some members who felt it signified shortsightedness about the national impact of Wisconsin’s workers struggle. The suspicion is that this is the result of their tunnel vision strategy focusing on electoral politics, lobbying, and local bargaining and legal strategy. Many of these regional protests are remarkable: there have been rallies in traditionally conservative parts of Wisconsin like Stevens Point; seeing hundreds of workers showing up at a pro-union rally was unheard of before Walker introduced this extremely unpopular budget repair bill. Those local events while important, do not put a national spotlight on Wisconsin or put pressure on Governor Walker as the occupation and disruption of the capitol, the teacher’s walk-outs, and massive crowds showing up day after day to protest.
It is clear those rank and file union members, and the rest of Wisconsin workers who show up day after day, are way out in front of Democrats, and the union leadership in their resistance to Walker’s bill, whose solutions to Walkers attacks continue to favor small decentralized rallies and meetings, and concessionary positions on the bill, and the plan to win. They from the start announced what they plan to do once the bill is passed instead of waging an all-out war against the bill, and offering up major concessions from union members without any type of rank and file democratic discussion.
Top union officials are channeling the incredible outpouring of support (both donations and volunteers), into gathering signatures to recall the Republican senators who all support Walker’s bill, which it sounds like has the possibility of moving forward, but it is problematic as the main plan of attack, since it is a long term plan focused in the more conservative districts of Wisconsin, and it is again putting the emphasis back on electoral politics rather than channeling workers frustration into escalating labor actions. With this said, they have put little attention to maintaining a presence inside and around the capitol building even for the big weekend rallies.
Friday night, while rumors were spreading unions might push for a compromise with Walker over payroll dues deduction, and backing off his demand that unions recertify each year, there was a rally spearheaded by the National Nurses Union that doesn’t have a significant membership base in Wisconsin but showed up to push back on the message of major concessions offered up by the AFL-CIO, the NEA, and AFSCME. These concessions, while popular in helping unions gain back national public support, were discouraging for members who now face significant pay cuts regardless of it the whole budget gets passed.
There was also a Mardi-Gras themed funeral procession that took up 12 blocks, and ended at the entrance to the capitol, and speakers took a more militant line on the Budget repair bill, even encouraging escalating actions including a general strike. Unfortunately the evening ended with event leaders like journalist Jon Nichols, and state representative Brett Halsey asking those inside the capitol to vacate for the night, thus ending the two and a half week occupation. The emphasis on politeness, and being peaceful that is a core theme of these protests partially to counter Fox news' misrepresentation of their behavior, has in some ways been a double edged sword in that people are constantly giving up ground to the police and officials and avoiding confrontation when defending their basic access rights to the public building, one of the biggest pieces of leverage opponents of the bill have against Governor Walker.
Democratic and labor leaders should take criticism for continuing to urge protestors to concede the inside the capitol building to Governor Walker and the Republicans, who have showed nothing but contempt for the protesters, calling them slobs, and accusing them of doing millions of dollars in damage to the building, including accusations of $500,000 damage for putting signs up on the wall. Now that those accusations have been debunked, the victory claimed by assembly members seems hollow as they led protesters out of the building.
Protests continue now inside and outside the building, and while the vote passed in the assembly, there is no sign of people going away. While Democrats, and union officials push for change through legal action and upcoming elections, it is unclear what the next steps are for the workers and residents who mobilized like no other time in Wisconsin’s history.
Samantha Winslow is a journalist in the Chicago area, who has written for Gapers Block, The Chicago Reporter and recently graduated from Northwestern’s Journalism school. She is a former union organizer at SEIU- United Healthcare Workers West, and the National Union of Healthcare Workers in California.
Twitter: samjwinslow – for updates on Wisconsin