United States: Wisconsin workers raise the stakes

February 19 rally for workers' rights, Madison. Photo: mrbula/flikr.

A huge battle of the right of public sector workers to organise has broken out in the state of Wisconsin. In response to a law pushed by Republican Governor Scott Walker, protesters have held a sit-in at the state legislature in Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, since February 14.

The law would combine cuts to wages and conditions with a ban on collective bargaining for many public sector workers.

Over the next two days, teachers began ad hoc industrial action by phoning in sick and thousands of high school students walked out of class to join protests in Madison. Protesters carried placards such as “Welcome to Cairo” and made comparisons between Walker and the fallen Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Thousands of people besieged the state legislature to prevent a vote from taking place. All 14 Democrat Senators refused to turn up, in order to deny the legislature quorum. In response to the threat from Walker to send state troopers to capture them and force them to show up, all Democrat Senators fled the state.

Huge protests by public sector workers and their supporters have continued. On February 21, the South Central Federation of Labor, an umbrella organisation representing more than 45,000 workers in Wisconsin, voted for a general strike if Walker’s bill passes the state legislature, the February 22 BusinessInsider.com said.

In the early hours of February 25, Republicans rammed the bill through the state assembly. However, it must still pass the Senate, which does not have quorum as long as the Democrat senators remain out of the state.

Protests have continued and even won support from some of the police. Salon.com said on February 26 that more than 100 police officers joined the sit-in in the legislature. Red Ant Liberation Army quoted a participant in the sit in, who said police arrived, informed the crowd they had instructions to clear them out and then announced they refused to do so and were joining the protesters.

Robin Gee is an editor at Madison Area Technical College, a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 3872 and delegate to the Madison-area South Central Federation of Labor. In the article below, published at SocialistWorker.org on February 22, Gee describes the efforts to block Walker’s union-busting bill.

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After a weekend that included one of the largest protests in Wisconsin history, union activists and the Madison-area labour council have continued organising to oppose all provisions of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting “budget repair bill”.

About 40 labour and student activists gathered on February 21 to discuss the next steps in building a “no concessions” campaign against Walker’s bill.

The bill would not only strip public-sector unions of meaningful collective bargaining rights, but also slash pay by forcing public employees to cover 12.6% of their health insurance costs and contribute 5.8% of their pay toward their pensions.

The bill would also force 65,000 people off the Medicaid rolls and gut BadgerCare, the healthcare program for low-income children.

Our group, which named itself the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition, was formed in part to counter some union officials’' public offer of concessions. Marty Biel, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 24, has stated publicly that his union would be willing to accept cuts in pay and benefits, and even bow to a two-year “freeze” on collective bargaining if Walker agrees to return to bargaining in 2013.

But that’s not acceptable to many public-sector workers in Wisconsin, who would see their income slashed by as much as 20% under Walker’s plan.

With the huge numbers of non-union working people actively in support of our struggle, it’s important that we stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable people in our state.

That same sentiment was shared by delegates to Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), the umbrella organisation for unions representing 45,000 workers in the six-county area around Madison.

When I announced the formation of the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition, the news was welcomed with cheers.

SCFL delegates voted to endorse a national general strike in the event that Walker signs the bill, and designated a committee to educate and prepare our members for such an action.

There was virtually no debate on whether we should endorse a general strike — only how to prepare for one. No one argued for accepting concessions.

We have already made concessions for many years, and we’ve got to the point where we've got nothing left to give.

For example, members of AFSCME Local 171 are preparing video interviews with their members who work full-time yet receive food stamps.

The meeting also celebrated the solidarity on display in this fight. Workers talked about how student struggles inspired them in this last week of struggle — and some students spoke about how they were moved by the unions’ fight, too.

Many acknowledged the important role of members of Madison Teachers Inc., who remained off the job for a fourth school day in a row.

The endorsement of a general strike by South Central Federation of Labor followed a weekend in which labour flexed its muscles for the first time in decades.

On February 19, more than 70,000 people marched in and around the capitol building to chants of “kill the bill” and “protect union rights”. It was the sixth day of ongoing protests and an occupation of the building itself.

Students and others, led by the University of Wisconsin (UW) graduate employees union, the Teaching Assistants’ Association union, have been sleeping in at the Capitol since February 14 to keep the building under the control of workers.

They have since been joined by workers from many different unions, including the firefighters and the steelworkers.

The floor is hard and most get little sleep, but participants in the overnight occupation feel that it’s worth the discomfort to maintain the “people’s capitol” and to continue the momentum of the movement.

The sense of solidarity is contagious, with musical performances until midnight or later.

Many who turned out on February 19 were excited about their chance to spend the night in the capitol. “It’s been one of the best experiences of my life,” said Liza Brown, a 19-year-old college student at UW Milwaukee.

On February 19, there was also the first organised opposition to the anti-Walker protesters, with a small contingent of Tea Party activists turning out.

Police generously estimated the group at between 1500 and 2000.

They were mostly contained to one side of the Capitol and drowned out by the throngs of union activists who continued to chant against the bill.

A few Tea Party counter-demonstrators tried to goad people into a confrontation, but the event remained peaceful — so much so that the local police issued a press release thanking the protesters.

Still, sentiment ran high whenever pro-union demonstrators encountered the right-wingers. One Tea Party activist held a sign reading: “I would have come down here earlier, but I had to work.”

Seeing the sign, several workers shouted: “Who do you think gave you the weekend?”

Another held a sign chiding teachers for being greedy and unwilling to cooperate.
High school teacher Rhett Hanson countered: “Teachers have always been willing to make concessions when our districts were suffering and they asked us to. We’ve been giving since 1993, and we’re still giving.

“But we know we were not in bad shape when he got in. We had a surplus, but Walker held a closed session and gave corporations tax breaks totalling [US]$140 million.”

Workers were angry, but the crowd was upbeat. Many families brought their children for an impromptu civics lesson.

The importance of the moment was not lost on anyone.

“America is waking up!” said Kirk Danhouser, a city maintenance worker and member of AFSCME Local 60. “They used to say ‘Remember the Alamo’. Well, now they’ll say ‘Remember Wisconsin!’”

The crowd included contingents of high school students, immigrant rights activists and several groups of private-sector union members, including Teamsters and members of building trades locals. Many people carried signs calling for no concessions.

“This is about America — our neighbours are here,” said Gerard Runde, a UPS worker in Madison and member of Teamsters Local 344. “This affects all workers in Wisconsin. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

High school students join a rally against Walker’s anti-union bill on February 15.

Police officers join the occupation of Wisconsin’s legislature in Madison.

‘I'm a union man ... someone asked me why I'm going to Madison and I said its because they are making history in Madison.’ Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morrello performs his Nightwatchman track “Union Song” to protesters in Madison on February 21.