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After week one of Wisconsin Capitol takeover: ‘We can’t lose collective bargaining’

Published Feb 21, 2011 6:40 PM

Liberation Square, Madison, Wis.
WW photo: Bryan G. Pfeifer

Feb. 19 – The people’s liberation of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., is in full swing.

“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,” said Mahlon Mitchell of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin at the massive afternoon rally at the state Capitol Feb. 19. Mitchell became the first African-American president of the PFW on Jan. 12.

On Feb. 19 the biggest demonstration yet, with an estimated crowd of 100,000, filled the grounds outside the state Capitol and continued the sit-in. 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, queer community -- marched on the streets for the entire day accompanied by drumming, chanting, dancing and singing.

The Tea Party hosted a counter-rally of about 2,000 on the Capitol steps in the early afternoon protected by more than 500 fully armed cops with riot gear. Tea Party members were bused in and left quickly after their rally. They were directly confronted by students and workers from such organizations as Students for a Democratic Society, Fight Imperialism, Stand Together, Bail Out the People Movement, Veterans for Peace, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, Workers World Party and others with chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, racist Tea Party has to go,” “Hands off workers: Make the banks pay,” and “Kill the Bill.”

The racist, anti-worker Tea Party crowd was entirely surrounded by those opposing Walker’s bill, which is an attack on the entire working class and oppressed internationally by the banks, corporations and the Pentagon. Some workers even waded into the Tea Party crowd and shouted at the main speakers.

John Carey, a member of Veterans for Peace from the Clarence Kailin Chapter 25 Madison, told this writer, “We feel we have a purpose here because the economy is being affected by the war or should I say 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

As has happened during the entire week, the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, American Federation of Teacher-Wisconsin, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and other unions bused in thousands of members from across the state and beyond. Delegations of union members, students and other community members came from across the country and other locations such as Toronto, Ont.

Emergency national demonstrations by the Bail Out the People Movement began Feb.18 at the Stock Exchange on Wall Street and continued nationwide. Solidarity demonstrations across the world began on Feb. 18 and continued on Feb.19. Both will continue until the anti-worker Walker bill is killed entirely.

Walker and legislators for the so-called “budget repair bill” have been flooded with emails, phone calls and tweets. Thousands of union and non-union members and students have visited legislators’ 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 Walker’s and other right-wing racist politicians’ homes, held protests throughout the state, sponsored candlelight vigils and more. These and many other actions are ongoing.

Lynne Pfeifer, an AFSCME Local 1288 member who has worked at the Manitowoc County Health and Rehabilitation Center for over 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. They have to do something different.”

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 speakers stood before thousands of poor and working people expressing their solidarity and pledging to assist in any way to make killing Walker’s bill a reality. Reverend 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, and pledged solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer community.

Inside the occupied Capitol

Students of all nationalities were the spark inside the Capitol beginning with a rally at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Feb. 14, followed by a march and then occupation of the Capitol. Since then students have taken over and held the rotunda, keeping up a spirited atmosphere with chanting, drumming, dancing and coordinating speak-outs throughout all hours of the day and night. The students increased their presence Feb. 16 when the entire K-12 Madison public school system was shut down when teachers called in sick. Students joined their teachers at the Capitol and haven’t left; the Madison public schools haven’t been open since Feb. 15.

On Feb. 18 the Milwaukee Public Schools shut down, and many students from that district also 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 over the past week. After threats of retaliatory actions against some teachers, doctors began signing excuse slips at the Capitol on Feb. 19.

Throughout the week inside the Capitol, chants of pro-worker slogans such as “What’s disgusting: union busting” echo off the rotunda walls. Food and beverages are being distributed by students and workers, and 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.

The inspiration that the Wisconsin protesters got from the Egyptian people is highly visible with signs such as "Egypt? Wisconsin?" 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 this writer.

On Feb. 17 a statewide University of Wisconsin student walkout took place. The largest walkout happened at UW-Milwaukee, the second largest campus in the UW System with a student body of 30,000. More than 3,000 students filled the main plaza. That rally was sponsored by SDS and supported by the UWM Education Rights Campaign.

Due to an expected snowstorm on Feb. 20, a rally will take place inside the Capitol sponsored by Wisconsin AFL-CIO member unions and others. Feb. 21 is a furlough day for state workers so the rally turnout is expected to be large. Feb. 22 will be another showdown day as the Assembly returns and attempts to pass Walker’s bill.