Wisconsin workers lead the way
‘Kill the bill, not our unions’
Published Feb 23, 2011 4:18 PM
The people’s liberation of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., is in full
Speaking to a massive rally on Feb. 19, Mahlon Mitchell of the Professional
Firefighters of Wisconsin said, “Now is the time. We can’t let this
die because we are at ground zero and what happens here affects the rest of the
world. We have to be strong. A united front.” Mitchell in January became
the first African-American president of the PFW.
WW photos: Sharon Black and Bryan G. Pfeifer
This was the biggest demonstration yet, with an estimated crowd of 100,000. It
filled the grounds outside the state Capitol while a sit-in continued inside. A
massive roving picket line with all sectors of the working class — union
and non-union workers, the unemployed, students, people of color, immigrants,
and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community — marched
on the streets for the entire day, accompanied by drumming, chanting, dancing
The racist, anti-worker Tea Party hosted a counter-rally on the Capitol steps
in the early afternoon. It drew about 2,000, protected by more than 500 fully
armed cops with riot gear. Tea Party members were bused in and left quickly
after their rally.
The right-wingers were completely surrounded by the pro-union crowd. Some
workers even waded into the Tea Party crowd and shouted at the main
Students and workers from Students for a Democratic Society, Fight Imperialism,
Stand Together, Bail Out the People Movement, Veterans for Peace, Freedom Road
Socialist Organization and Workers World Party directly confronted the Tea
Party with chants of, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, racist Tea Party has to
go,” “Hands off workers: Make the banks pay” and “Kill
Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget repair” bill would eliminate
collective bargaining rights for 175,000 public sector union workers statewide.
Since Feb. 14 tens of thousands have been occupying the state Capitol to block
passage of this legislation, which is an attack on the entire working class and
oppressed by the banks, corporations and the Pentagon. Their pressure caused
Democratic legislators to leave the state, thus delaying a vote and giving the
workers more time to organize the massive protests.
John Carey, a member of Veterans for Peace from Madison, told this writer,
“We feel we have a purpose here because the economy is being affected by
the wars. We oppose war as being a way of settling differences between nations,
so we fit into this activity because our economy is being destroyed by the war
and that is affecting the unions and working people. I think that if the
administration is incapable of coming to a reasonable decision, namely not to
destroy collective bargaining, then the unions should force regaining and
maintaining their collective bargaining. They have a right to that and it can
never be taken away.”
Widespread union, student participation
Beginning Feb. 15 the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, the Wisconsin Education
Association Council, American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and other unions began
busing in thousands of members from across the state and beyond. Delegations of
union members, students and community groups came from across the country and
even from Toronto.
Emergency support demonstrations by the Bail Out the People Movement began
Feb.18 at the Stock Exchange on Wall Street and have continued across the
Walker and state legislators have been flooded with emails, phone calls, tweets
and thousands of visits to their offices. Virtually all the major unions have
frequent updates on their websites. Facebook is ablaze with up-to-the-minute
messages. Twitter updates are constant. Demonstrators utilize numerous other
communication strategies, including a live stream from inside the Capitol.
During the past week union members and their allies picketed the homes of
Walker and other right-wing, racist politicians, held protests throughout the
state, sponsored candlelight vigils and more. These and many other actions are
Lynne Pfeifer, an AFSCME Local 1288 member who has worked at the Manitowoc
County Health and Rehabilitation Center for more than 30 years, told this
writer: “We can’t have it. We can’t lose collective
bargaining. The rally at the state Capitol was fabulous. There were people all
over, on the lawn, on the sidewalks, around the Capitol, all different ages. I
got into the Capitol and that was another display. If those legislators
didn’t hear what they ought to do, they’re not paying attention.
They have to make some change.”
On Feb. 18, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke at a major noon-time rally
and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. spoke at an evening rally on the Capitol steps.
Both expressed their solidarity and pledged to help kill the Walker bill. Rev.
Jackson also put forward a people’s program demanding a moratorium on
foreclosures, relief for student loan debt, and a federal jobs program, among
other issues. He also pledged solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bi, trans and
Inside the occupied Capitol
Students of all nationalities were the spark behind occupying the Capitol. It
began with a rally at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Feb. 14, followed
by a march and then the sit-in. Students soon took over and held the Rotunda,
keeping up a spirited atmosphere with chanting, drumming, dancing and
coordinated speak-outs all hours of the day and night. The students increased
their presence after Madison teachers called in sick and the entire K-12 public
school system was shut down. It has remained closed since Feb. 15.
On Feb. 18 Milwaukee public schools shut down. Many students from that district
joined their teachers at the Capitol. Dozens of school districts in Wisconsin
have either shut down entirely or been slowed down by teacher sick-outs. After
threats of retaliatory action against some teachers, doctors began signing
excuse slips at the Capitol on Feb. 19.
Inside the Capitol, slogans such as “What’s disgusting: union
busting” echo off the Rotunda walls. Food and beverages are being
distributed by students and workers. Donations are being given directly or
called into local restaurants so food can be delivered.
Students and workers have been sleeping overnight at the Capitol since early in
the week. A communications room is in operation and medical workers are
assisting. The bonds of unity and solidarity keep spirits up and promote a deep
sense of camaraderie.
Signs such as “Egypt? Wisconsin?” convey the inspiration Wisconsin
protesters got from the Egyptian people. Spirits are bolstered by artwork from
other international struggles and signs from activists in the U.S. Large sheets
of paper with colorful artwork are taped to the walls, and notable signs
include “Zapata lives” and “Sí se puede.” Also
visible are solidarity messages from Argentina, Mexico, Texas, Detroit,
Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, Raleigh, N.C., and others.
“I think it’s great to see the crowds just building and building.
We need to fight against this bill — it’s terrible. It was our
fathers and mothers who built this, now it’s a whole younger generation,
and it’s just wonderful to see,” Babette Grunow of Milwaukee told
On Feb. 17 University of Wisconsin students walked out statewide. At
UW-Milwaukee, the second-largest campus in the state university system, more
than 3,000 students filled the main plaza for a rally sponsored by SDS and
supported by the UWM Education Rights Campaign.
Gilbert Johnson, president of the American Federation of State, County and
Municipal Employees Local 82 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told
this reporter: “We’re repulsed by the efforts of the current
administration to strip us of our rights and dignity. The increasing protests
statewide, and especially at the state Capitol, are exactly what’s needed
to kill Gov. Walker’s bill, which is a union-busting and anti-worker
attack. The resistance by the people of Wisconsin is inspiring and instilling
hope in poor and working people all over the country. We need a constant stream
of people going to the Capitol to stop this bill.”
Walker’s budget bill was stalled in the Joint Finance Committee after a
people’s filibuster of more than 20 hours on Feb. 15-16.
The Wisconsin AFL-CIO says that 20,000 descended on the Capitol Feb. 15 and
50,000 the next day. Delegations of firefighters joined the protests in a
notable act of solidarity, as they are exempt from the dire effects of
Walker’s bill. They received an electric response from the crowds, as
have the youth and students.
Support from labor & community groups
Statements and resolutions of support for Wisconsin workers and students have
come in from across the country. The San Francisco Labor Council, the Tucson
May 1st Coalition, United Electrical Workers Local 150, Black Workers for
Justice, South Bronx Community Congress, Michigan Emergency Committee Against
War and Injustice, Students for a Democratic Society, Fight Imperialism, Stand
Together, Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions &
Utility Shutoffs, and scores of other unions, student and community
organizations have pledged support.
Bryan G. Pfeifer, a former Wisconsin resident, is presently staff organizer
with the Union of Part-Time Faculty-AFT Local 477 at Wayne State University in
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