By Sharon Black
State Capitol, Madison, Wis.
March 1 — In a back-and-forth struggle where the final result has still not been determined, the mass mobilization to stop Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s aggressive assault on workers is growing stronger as the confrontation continues.
On March 1, as Gov. Walker delivers his cutback budget speech, nearly 100 young protesters still occupy the state Capitol. Thousands continue to protest outside.
Last night we saw youth in sleeping bags start a “Walkerville” outside the Capitol, reminiscent of the “Hoovervilles” named after Herbert Hoover, the U.S. president who presided over the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression.
Enduring freezing temperatures, those outside supported those valiant workers and youth who remain inside the Capitol. The occupation of the building is into its third week now against the anti-union “budget repair bill,” which would sweep away collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers, slash public education and more.
Following a big Feb. 27 battle and victory (see below), Gov. Walker abruptly violated an agreement to open the Capitol normally on Feb. 28 after “cleaning.”
On the morning of Feb. 28, protesters who went out for coffee found themselves locked out, along with the general public and Capitol workers and elected officials. The building was abruptly sealed off. Workers were ordered to both weld and screw down ground floor windows. Only those with Walker’s OK were allowed inside. This appeared to be aimed at stifling protest at the governor’s March 1 budgetary address.
Cheryl LaBash, a Detroit activist who has participated in the occupation since Feb 19, told WW: “The governor has taken draconian measures that are constitutionally illegal. He has in effect shut down the Capitol to the public. We have been in constant touch with the brave youth who are continuing to hold out inside, who report that the hundreds of banners and signs taped to the wall remain intact and that they are strong.”
The Capitol belongs to the people
On Feb. 27, elated workers and students celebrated and danced filling the Capitol with chants of “People’s power — workers power!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” They sang “Solidarity Forever” and “We Shall Overcome.” The 4 p.m. deadline to vacate the ornate Capitol for “cleaning” passed. Many of the thousand remaining inside vowed to stay and be arrested.
Seasoned trade unionists from the Steel Workers union joined high school and college students. People facing their first-ever arrest came with their children. Hundreds who spent sleepless nights on the cold marble floors had forged bonds of friendship that kept them strong.
Before the 4 p.m. deadline a speak-out raged on, with participants describing why they came and what should be done.
Those inside heard that thousands of people were ringing the Capitol demanding to come in after the doors were shut.
Police from all sorts of divisions were deployed — local Madison police, state police and various sheriffs’ offices, including a SWAT team from northern Wisconsin. One Democratic legislator urged people to leave. He was ignored.
The two lower floors were filled with demonstrators. A majority went to the second floor — those who would defy the order to leave, including a delegation of local clergy and older union leaders. Firefighters and even some “cops for labor” joined, showing the depth and strength of this movement.
An older Wisconsin worker, who carried a homemade sign reading “Clean Walker out of the WI Capitol,” explained it this way: “We are just fed up and tired. Many of us are farmers who are holding down two and three jobs just to make ends meet. Walker says we are lazy. How can he call us freeloaders? Walker doesn’t know what he has done. We can stay here forever, as long as it takes.”
The sentiment of those protesting the union-busting bill has turned into a movement to recall Walker and a movement that has won wide and deep support.
As a local bartender stated, “This is class war. This is not just about Walker; it’s about a fight against the Tea Party and the rich.”
Armando Robles, president of the Chicago United Electrical Workers Local 1110 that conducted the successful occupation of the Chicago Windows and Doors workers, spoke to the crowd during the celebration in the Capitol. Ana Marie from FIST — Fight Imperialism, Stand Together — in North Carolina translated.
The struggle in Wisconsin has gained national support not only from the official trade union movement, which has held protests all over the country, but also from grassroots community groups like the Bail Out the People Movement and the immigrant rights community, which have called for broad support.
Students and teachers were the initial spark and an important backbone of the fight. Michael Landers, a special education teacher at Milwaukee Tech High School and a member of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, has attended numerous protests against Walker’s bill at the state Capitol in Madison and also in Milwaukee.
He exclaimed: “I am so proud that we have collectively stood up and found our voice in the face of this blatant attack on workers and students. The sense of shared purpose, camaraderie, and solidarity has been incredible. I have never been a part of such a diverse and united movement, and feel grateful to be able to contribute to the struggle. I have never been surer that the people united cannot be defeated.”
Today’s climax did not come out of the air. Massive demonstrations took place first in Wisconsin and then around the country. Democratic state senators have fled the state, refusing to participate in the Senate vote, in effect making it impossible to legally pass the bill by denying a quorum.
The people intervened. Teachers called out sick for a week, closing schools in 20 districts. Those occupying the Capitol used every creative tactic at their disposal to forestall even the Assembly vote, where passage was assured. Democratic Party legislators tacked more than 100 amendments onto the bill. But it was the incredible outpouring and tenacity of the people that actually held these legislators’ feet to the fire. A record 7,000 people testified around the clock.
150,000 rally in Madison Feb. 26
On Feb. 26, some 150,000 people came to the Capitol grounds, defying a snow storm to attend “the largest protest they had seen in Madison since the Vietnam War.”
Solidarity between the public worker unions and the private sector was unshakeable. Support poured in from around the country — 161 workers flew in from Los Angeles, including nurses, grocery workers and International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers.
The South Central Labor Federation passed a very important resolution that endorsed the call to vote for a general strike if the bill is passed.
There are still many tricks that Walker and his supporters can unleash to force the bill’s passage, or parts of it. In addition, Walker has threatened to lay off 1,500 state workers in retaliation if the Democratic senators refuse to return.
Walker has likened himself to Ronald Reagan and has called this his PATCO, referring to Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981.
A sleeping giant has finally awakened. No one knows what will take place during the next phase of this struggle, but the class struggle in the U.S. has emerged — and that is heartening to everyone.