Monday, March 28, 2011

Opening the way to a fightback

Madison resident Marshall Braun reviews the last month of protest in the capital.
March 16, 2011

IT'S BEEN a month since Gov. Scott Walker introduced his "budget repair bill" and simultaneously kicked a sleeping giant called the labor movement in the face.

Bill details were released on a Friday in February with little to no fanfare. On Sunday, 80 people protested at the governor's mansion. On Monday, February 14, 2,000 people showed up with "Valentine's Day" cards for Walker at the Capitol. On Tuesday, 15,000 folks surrounded the Capitol. Wednesday, 30,000 shut down the streets around the Capitol square. Thursday and Friday saw increased numbers, culminating in 70,000-plus on Saturday the 19th.

The occupation of the Capitol building began that Tuesday and lasted nearly three weeks before severe restrictions on Capitol access, combined with Democratic Party maneuvering, forced the remaining occupiers out. There were 24/7 protests, with numbers in the thousands nearly every day after, and on Saturday, March 12, the largest protests yet drew 185,000 people, according to the Wisconsin AFL-CIO's estimate.

This past month has been the most tremendous and invigorating yet exhausting time of my life. It has been dotted with tremendous high points, like the four-day "sick-out" of thousands of teachers across the state, and devastating setbacks, like the signing of the amended bill that strips most public-sector unions of most of their rights, with the not-so-hidden intent of decertifying as many of them as soon as possible.

There have been small lows, like daily forgetting where I parked and the all too often accompanying ticket--and personal highs, like my 2-year-old son falling asleep in my arms despite following a drum line with helicopters overhead, and being surrounded by 70,000 protesters out-chanting a couple hundred Tea-baggers.

There is a political fire in this town, hard to describe, maybe even harder to quench. It's difficult to leave my apartment without getting into a political conversation. On top of the ever-present pins and T-shirts folks are wearing in solidarity with public workers, many have decided simply to carry around signs.

At first, I thought people were just going to or coming from the Capitol, but I've since realized that getting groceries is the perfect time to carry a placard. While driving, I've gotten so used to seeing joggers with carried or pinned-on signs that I instinctively give them the "This is what democracy looks like" horn beep, which always elicits a raised fist, no matter how tired they may be.

People are taking literally any opportunity to show their union support and contempt for Walker. Because Johnsonville Brats gave a hefty campaign contribution to Walker and are served at the twice-annual world's largest Brat Fest, multiple alternative brat fests are being planned, including a virtual fest that's already up on Facebook, promising a "cyberbrat" in return for a donation to a local food bank.

This spirit isn't confined to Madison. My small hometown nestled in the conservative armpit of Wisconsin known as the Fox Valley has had multiple pro-labor rallies. There have been solidarity rallies in all 50 states. Of course, many other states are now facing the same type of legislation, or even worse, which has prompted massive protests from Indiana to Ohio to New Jersey.

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LAST WEDNESDAY, the state Senate hastily passed the stripped-down union-killing bill. The GOP-controlled Senate had been waiting since February 17 to pass the full bill. On that day, we stopped the vote by blockading the Senate chamber.

People also blockaded several Democratic legislators' offices, preventing the police from taking them to the chamber and allowing at least one senator, Chris Larson, to sneak out a window and join his fellow Democrats in Illinois. The 14 AWOL senators prevented a quorum that was necessary to pass the full bill. Instead, the new bill passed with a smaller quorum. Devoid of any "fiscal" provisions, it laid bare the lie that union-busting had anything to do with balancing the budget.

Within an hour of the bill passing, thousands surrounded the Capitol, while hundreds fortunate enough to be let in earlier protested inside. When I arrived, people were banging on doors at all of the dozens of entrances and chanting "Let us in!" Many people including myself were looking for any way in. A familiar protester whispered to me, "Window open at Wisconsin Street entrance." When I got there, hundreds of completely silent protesters were waiting to stream through a chest-high window.

Dozens got in before extremely angry police officers came and shut it from inside. Immediately, the silent crowd boomed. Some who got in the window broke through the cops and opened the doors. I was among the roughly hundred or so who rushed in before the police regained control of the entrance.

We immediately started planning how to let everyone else in. We found some who were already talking about rushing one entrance as a decoy, and then sending many more to the opposite entrance to try to keep it open. We planned it for 10 minutes out and texted everyone we knew outside to move to the State Street entrance.

The deception worked, as dozens of us flew past a couple cops and opened the State Street doors, allowing thousands to stream in to cheering and high-fives from the jubilant protesters inside. That action broke the cops' resolve, and they retreated to the fourth level.

Hundreds made their way toward the Assembly chamber, where the final vote required to pass the bill was to happen at 11 a.m. the next morning. Many spent the night in a vestibule outside of the chamber, discussing how best to hold their ground. Unfortunately, by morning, the numbers had dwindled. The vote went through, but the demonstrators succeeded in delaying the vote by a couple hours as state troopers had to drag dozens from the hallway.

The "people's mic" that had run continuously for three weeks, except for during sleeping hours, was once again live in the middle of the rotunda with thousands listening to speeches and chanting. Around the mic, I ran into state Sen. Mark Mueller's son, who was trying to convince folks to leave. He was saying that we would look bad if we were arrested and would ruin the efforts of his dad, one of the "Fab 14." I argued that if we held our numbers, no one would be arrested. Following him around for a while, I made that point to everyone he talked to.

I took the microphone and introduced myself as a 20-year Madison resident, worker and a socialist, to hearty applause. The biggest reaction came when I talked about the various aspects of the original bill beyond stripping collective bargaining.

It is obvious that folks sped to the Capitol that night, angry about the loss of collective bargaining, but many were also upset about cuts to wages, state health care plans, transit and other programs for the poor. Walker's new budget released last week has severe cuts across the board.

It's laughable that he advocates the only way to balance the budget is through spending cuts when he just gave a $140 million tax break to corporations a month and a half ago, at a time when half of the corporations in Wisconsin already pay nothing in taxes.

I ended with a plea for people to keep up the protests and for rank-and-file union members to talk to each other, organize and think about job actions. The union leadership is reluctant to even hint at a strike and is seemingly content to focus only on elections and recall efforts for select GOP state senators and Walker. There has been one notable exception. President of the Madison Firefighters Union Joe Conway has advocated for a general strike.

Most people who are jazzed about the recall effort have their heart in the right place. However, it will take a year before we can even start collecting signatures for Walker's recall.

The Democrats are obviously pressuring the unions to convince their members to channel their protest energy into the polling booths and petition drives. Ironically, the recalls and ultimately the bill's overturning will happen only if the political pressure of the type fostered by the protests is maintained on the Democrats.

For example, there is no way that the now famed Fab 14 would have left the state had it not been for thousands of people in the streets.

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WHAT ARE the next steps? Already illegal for public unions to strike, the new bill makes it more difficult by allowing the governor to fire any public employee who misses three days of work without a doctor's note during a "state of emergency."

However, massive job actions make it nearly impossible for firings. The teachers have already shown that. The governor cannot replace most public positions with scab workers because they are specialized jobs. One of my favorite signs at one of the protests was, "Can the National Guard Teach Organic Chem?"

That being said, the union leadership is making a concerted effort to shift energy into electoral strategies and away from strikes. AFSCME Local 60-Council 40 President Don Coyler wrote to members a day after the largest labor protest in memory:

Thanks to everyone who attended Saturday's rally. This enormous show of unity was inspiring. As you talk about this event with family, friends, and co-workers, please encourage them that we need their continued support. The recall effort needs grassroots support. Volunteering to help with gathering signatures or donating money are just two ways to help. Then, there will be campaigning for more enlightened candidates.

This type of rhetoric has been persuasive, judging by people's attitudes.

Now is the time to keep up the protests and civil disobedience. The lesson from Wednesday's reoccupation of the Capitol is that confident steps and a little bit of planning can cascade into victory.

Continued protest can give confidence and organizing space to union members. Civil disobedience is, by nature, illegal, but we must not be afraid of breaking the law. Most of what we've done in the past month has been illegal. The occupation was illegal, especially last Wednesday night's, since a recent court order threatens up to six months in jail for anyone staying past closing time.

Every rally since the first has been held without a permit. How can we expect unions to act illegally if we won't ourselves?

We've come so far. The Teaching Assistants' Association, which during the Valentine's Day rally urged its members to stay on the sidewalk in order to not disrupt traffic, is now having to urge them not to strike.

The Firefighters have moved from symbols of solidarity to leaders in the struggle, disobeying police orders to leave the Capitol two weeks ago. In fact, it was their steadfastness that convinced Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs to disobey his superiors and allow the protesters to stay another night, which led to four more days.

It may take one bold union like the Firefighters Union to show the way and open the doors for others to enter the fray. A victory in Wisconsin could embolden the union movement nationwide.

Even if we lose here, something has fundamentally changed. Masses of workers here understand for the first time in a long time that they are workers, not just consumers. Across the country, many workers are starting to realize that their interests lie primarily with other workers, private or public, Black, Brown or white, male or female, gay or straight.

They realize that the Koch Brothers' interests are not their own. The formerly one-sided class war has met a second side here in Madison, and we have Scott Walker to thank for that.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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