In 2011, I wrote a series of dispatches about what was happening in Wisconsin when thousands rallied in Madison to protest Scott Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill”, leading to some teacher sick strikes and the occupation of the capitol building. I wrote at night after attending demonstrations all day, reading local newspapers where I could, and adding my personal commentary about the feel of things. There are a few things I got wrong at the time, a mix-up here and there about someone’s title or the particulars of a legal case, some underestimations of forces at play. I’ve collected the twelve dispatches here as they were published.
Battle for Wisconsin #1 (2/17/11)
First, I think we’re all shocked at what’s happening here. There’s obviously been a build-up to this point, a few test battles in union-busting public sector workers and of course the (democratic) legislature stalling out and then rejecting state contracts, but the pace at which things have proceeded this week is mindblowing. Walker introduced the bill on Friday with intent to get it passed Wednesday, which pissed people off even more than the contents of the bill already had.
Second, protests have definitely gone above and beyond what union leadership had planned. Monday’s action was called by the graduate student union (TAA) to deliver valentines to the governor, “I love my university, don’t break my heart”, followed by a strict lobbying plan. The day then kind of fizzled. Tuesday was intended to be the same but bigger, but things blew up when firefighters showed up despite being exempt from the cuts and high school students walked out of class as well. Then there was a community forum that encouraged militancy, and as rallies kept the capitol packed throughout the night, students and workers somewhat spontaneously decided to sleep in at the capitol and keep public testimonies going all night long. The TAA initially was against it because they want to appear as good partners to make things work, but have since embraced it and then called for another sleep-in the following night. Madison Teachers soft struck by sicking-out on Wednesday, though not an official union action, and it forced school closures in the city; shortly after WEAC (NEA affiliate for Wisconsin teachers) announced Wisconsin teachers would not show up to work Thursday and Friday to be part of demonstrations.
The union bureaucracy has been lagging behind workers here. The number of handmade signs are roughly equal to mass produced placards, with all kinds of witty takes on pop culture and Wisconsin traditions, but the actions workers are taking are definitely directing how things are shaping up here. The official program of speakers were the same two days in a row — which I think says that unions were expecting a different crowd of people to come for lobbying either day. In their meeting this morning, the AFL-CIO were prepared for a loss, but the mood of workers here is increasingly confident as private sector unions and skilled trades have stuck it out for the last few days. Now it seems like unions are ready to invest in this fight; presidents of the internationals of the NEA and AFSCME were in town today, and its rumored that Trumka and Jesse Jackson will be here tomorrow.
The mood is increasingly confident and the sense of solidarity here is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Madison feels radically different and working class issues have hegemony for the moment — a few examples: two plumbers in the bathroom talking to each other, “This isn’t about parties, its about the working class,”; walking downtown people all over are watching tv reports in the streets and discussing what this means for working people while cars honk approvingly at AFSCME members crossing the walk. Firefighters in uniform led demonstrators by bagpipe to a municipal building to get support for a motion to ratify municipal contracts now should the bill pass; they were cheered the whole way through. At the capitol tonight, workers chanted “We are Wisconsin!” and “Union!”, and to me they’re speaking about the kind of unionism represented by the solidarity in the room, not just collective bargaining. Signs are everywhere in support of the public unions, and businesses that want solicitation have all catered to workers in one way or another. Even emails from liberal-progressive groups I get daily are taking a very different turn, coming out strongly for workers and looking for ways to empower the unions. WORT, the community station, has been covering the bill and the protests around the clock, airing testimonies of workers and most all of their music is labor or struggle themed.
Lastly, things are getting more militant day by day. Monday was sleepier, Tuesday was people finding each other and feeling it out, bolstered by students and firefighters, Wednesday more support (now from cops, too!) and experimentation and today chants are turning to calls for Walker’s removal, direct action and no compromises (“Kill the bill!”). Since legislators have fled the state and broken quorum, there is a little more wiggle room to plan something and we’re hoping to build confidence to keep things going and encourage strikes or other job actions if the bill makes it through — my sense is that workers are livid and they want this thing dead, period. Wednesday night there was an exchange outside the finance committee where someone came out to silence the chanting, “Be quiet so we can amend this thing for you,” which was countered with, “We don’t want an amendment, kill the bill!”
So that’s the gist of it. Who knows if we’ve hit the peak or if tonight’s sleep-in will have more networking among unionists, students and other workers that will lead to more militancy.
Battle for Wisconsin #2 (2/18/11)
Thursday night ended with lots of energy and momentum as Democratic senators fled the state to break quorum and block a vote, and Friday seems to be a difficult and contradictory day. Public schools remain closed and thousands of UW students walked out today to join workers at the capitol, so there remains important grassroots energy but the situation is changing quickly.
Major establishment leaders have taken to Madison, with a visit today from Trumpka and Jesse Jackson. Where until now there was a remarkable absence of bureaucratic control, Democrats, the AFL-CIO and WEAC have all jumped in suddenly. SEIU is sending a team of international staff organizers to take over operations at the capitol. Trumpka of course gave a rah rah speech this morning, and to say nothing about the obvious flaws with the AFL-CIO playbook and language of the “middle class”, the atmosphere has shifted from solidarity detachments of local unions networking, organizing bottom-up by bullhorn and passing messages to major sound-system rallies with prominent speakers calling the shots. Much more troubling is the relationship between Trumpka and the TAA (graduate student AFT affiliate), as Trumpka came to personally address the TAA who have erected a semi-permanent office in the capitol building. Throughout the week the TAA has been trying to keep to a strict lobbying strategy and have disapproved of sit-ins and other militant demonstrations, but with Trumpka’s arrival TAA leaders seem much more arrogant in their belief that they command activity and information inside the capitol; while most union members have been out conversing and talking about what’s next, they’ve mostly been holed up in their private office and have reserved a number of rooms that remain empty. Word is that TAA leaders already see this thing as a lose and are acting accordingly.
Democrats obviously made an excellent move fleeing the state to block the senate vote, but they’re taking all the credit for resistance to attacks and today they’re trying to scoop the movement into their party with chants like, “We Want Russ!” (Feingold), mass distributions of signs targeting Republicans and posting pictures of Democratic legislators in the capitol with slogans proclaiming their respect for workers. Of course, the reason we’re in this mess to begin with is because the Democratic majority legislature stalled unions and ultimately voted down state contracts in Decembers, obviously setting up Walker to complete the pass.
So as the labor bureaucracy and the Democrats step in to take over the movement internally, the state is also getting firmer. Until yesterday, it seemed as though there were more plain clothed police holding signs that read “Cops 4 Labor Rights” than actual uniformed cops on the street policing, but today dozens of state troopers are stationed in the capitol and they’ve blocked off the entrance to the Assembly and Senate rooms as they anticipate more sit-ins and/or anger over a potential vote on the bill. Remarkably, there has not been any violence nor any arrests to date.
But be that as it may, when the major AFL-CIO scheduled rallies conclude the grassroots energy remains. Life inside the capitol is very rowdy and a trend has taken over to plaster all the walls with hand drawn posters brought out for protests; its spectacular. Banners from the top floors all hang listing cities that have said they’re in solidarity with us in Madison: Boston, San Francisco, Columbus, Chicago — and more keep coming. Union members wearing jackets, hats and t-shirts with their local number on it are regularly thanked and held up as the heroes here. Madison Teachers Inc (MTI, local union) has taken up petitions to begin a recall of governor Walker. Some of us had an idea to solicit area businesses and tell them that if they didn’t have a sign in their window saying they support workers that we’d make sure their business wasn’t patronized — literally minutes later a group of teachers started talking about how no one should solicit businesses without union support signs. Close to 6pm Jesse Jackson began his speech that captured the sentiment here, “Wisconsin is the Superbowl of Workers’ Rights.” Well said. Jackson continued by pointing to struggles across the globe and talking about the history of struggle for public unions and the connection to civil rights, leading to a chant “When we fight, we win!” and then “Workers’ rights are human rights!”
News on the bill is that Assembly Republicans, who, unlike the Senate, do have quorum, were momentarily successful in a motion to have the bill be un-amendable, though that was turned around shortly thereafter. By early evening, they announced that the Assembly will adjourn until Tuesday, the same day that Walker is due to unveil his state budget.
The sense now is that the struggle is at a kind of stalemate. Walker and the legislature are stalling out the workers hoping to break them with time and discouragement and to also let the labor bureaucracy destabilize solidarities on the inside as the state starts to clamp down — Mayor Dave here in Madison sued MTI for their sick-outs and attempted to get an injunction, but was denied by a judge. Tomorrow a Tea Party counter-rally has also been called.
On the workers’ side more allies are finding their way to the demonstrations: MadWorC, the Madison Worker Cooperative association, is rallying their member cooperatives in support and will drive a line of cooperative taxis in a parade up in support. Thursday evening saw some municipal rebellions as cities, towns and districts tried to ram through contracts in anticipation of the bill. Reports of similar worker-student rallies in Ohio have also given workers here the cue that they’re doing what they should be doing. Its become well known that the budget deficit the bill says its out to fix was actually created by Walker, and the sense of injustice is carrying commitment to kill the bill. Walker inherited a surplus of about $120 million, which he promptly gave away to corporations and the rich as tax cuts, and now says that union-busting is the solution for the resulting manufactured deficit. Maybe most importantly, there are rumors of a strike of support staff at the university on Tuesday.
I really don’t think that the Tea Party is anything to worry about — their usual strengths are in demonstrating some kind of anger over the way things are going and grabbing white people who are angry there isn’t a fight going on while things are getting so horrible. They say they’re bringing cleaning supplies to restore the capitol from the “dirty hippies”, so they’re not gonna make any friends among the workers here. The bigger issue is going to be the cadre of international staffers and Democratic party feeders, who are already disturbing the alliance of workers who have without the capitalist parties. And even if our solidarity carries and we deflect the internal challenges, the sense of “real time” is coming back and fighting with “movement time” — that is to say that the pressures of everyday life are weighing down, there’s no imminent bill that could pass at any second as there has been for the last three days and probably many teachers will go back to work Monday.
But its too early to call and every day has had some kind of surprise that has pushed and taken this to another level. Just thinking about it from the perspective of the legislators, they’ve got to be making a calculation about whether its more important to make some concessions, secure workplaces and allow a victory for workers, which gives us all confidence to do more, or if its better to pass the bill, risk more militant resistance and try to smash the movement. Either way, we should look to what a symbol this has been for the entire country and the pride people have in their unions right now isn’t just going to go away if this thing passes.
#3: War of Attrition (2/20/11)
One thing this week has become infamous for is the spread of rumors, and Friday night ended with a scare that a fleet of Tea Party buses were on their way to counter-protest with Sarah Palin at the head. WEAC members passed out flyers Friday afternoon briefing demonstrators on what to expect and how to conduct themselves, but apart from overworked activists and a few union bureaucrats, the crowd seemed unbothered by the right wing threat. Of course when a little more than a thousand tea party activists got to the capitol (sans Palin), most people seemed to think their presence was laughable and carried on without incident.
That said, the weekend might be likened to digging in the trenches with both sides waging a war of attrition. Friday the Assembly adjourned until Tuesday, and into today the fourteen state senators remain in exile somewhere in Rockford. For those who haven’t followed this, there are Republican majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate, and the actions of the fourteen senators broke quorum so that the bill can’t advance in the Senate until they return. In the Assembly there aren’t enough Democrats to pull a similar stunt, so actions were taken Thursday to try and physically stop them from meeting with sit-ins, though those were initially routed. So where we’re left is regrouping, trying to hold what we have and biding our time. There isn’t an imminent vote, so demonstrations this weekend are somewhat more relaxed, though militant activists are meeting with their fellows to develop whatever course of action they feel appropriate; we’re desperately searching for someone to take a step forward and lead the way. The one tension is that at any given moment senators may return to Wisconsin, allowing them to call a vote. So for now the union bureaucrats and Democratic Party are trying to soften up the crowd so that they can cut a deal for some concessions, at which point they’ll call back the exiled senators to wrap it up.
Since the frontal attack is on organized labor, the focus has been almost exclusively on collective bargaining rights, with lesser emphasis on dues check and yearly recertification and next to nothing on the serious attacks on working people that comes in the form of cuts to Badger Care (state health program) and restricting access to state services for immigrants. In the last few days, union heads have rolled out their concessions without regard to the uncompromising demands of the membership, giving up much of the ground gained by the movement — why concede more benefits when we know that this deficit is a fraud? What we expect is that the union leadership is willing to sell out unorganized workers and screw their own members to secure dues check and drop the yearly recertification, and that they probably won’t fight too hard for rights to bargain over benefits. Hypothetically, that’s a win-win for the Labor Democrats and the Legislature alike — the bureaucracy gets its dues, the Democrats continue getting contributions from organized labor and Walker and the Legislature see the rest of the bill pass, dealing a massive blow to the working class by pushing through most of the bill while dividing us. Oh, and then the unions don’t have to spend any more money being here if this wraps up with a quick deal.
Of course, this isn’t just going to come out of nowhere. The scene inside the capitol has consistently been more creative and independent than the rallies outside, so today police have been closing down stairwells and hallways, stationing a mix of state troopers, department of natural resources officers and other non-conventional law enforcement since so many police are out in support of the crowd. As that’s happening, union staffers are seeking out grassroots activists and giving them grunt tasks like phone banking and passing out bratwursts to snatch them away from their independent activity. Madison Teachers Inc is going back to work Tuesday, and SEIU has charted a plane from California to send a team of staff organizers to take over here and control the rank and file. All this is to say that left to themselves, the rank and file won’t consent to the concessions the internationals are making, so they’re systematically undermining the grassroots activity and replacing it with officially sanctioned actions. Symbolically, we’re seeing more professionally printed signs relative to the creative hand drawn signs that have been the standard this week.
On the other hand, the idea of a strike is one that a lot of workers here seem to think is necessary but they don’t want to go out on a limb if the senators return first and trigger a vote, which is the rumor going around now — that they’ll be back tomorrow morning. A lot is touch and go right now, but every day more people show up and locals are scrambling to find housing for all of the people coming from out of state to support us since they know that what happens in Wisconsin is going to happen across the US.
#4: Battle Plans (2/21/11)
We’re into the fifth day now and its starting to take its toll — I’m pretty worn so hopefully this report is holding the standard. The capitol square has temporarily depopulated to the point that it almost looks like a normal business day — of course its Sunday and most people don’t do business with KILL THE BILL placards and “I am MTI” pins. The local newspapers are saying that the small turnout today is because of the bad weather (it’s grossly cold and wet) and that shows the resolve of protesters here. But people have been here days and nights and since there’s no imminent threat its a good time to go home, take care of yourself and get ready for the next day. Some are leaving Madison, back to the rest of Wisconsin for life, work or until the next round, so allies from around the country have come to take their places and keep a presence. And even though things seem pretty mellow, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.
Union locals are meeting today to figure out what their game plan is. WEAC’s done a full 360: two weeks ago they agreed to the worst concessions for Wisconsin teachers, only to cancel school last Thursday and Friday to get teachers here, and now they’re back to their usual shenanigans as President Mary Bell ordered teachers who aren’t excused for President’s Day back to work. AFSCME local 171 and 2412 had small attendance at their joint meeting (70 people out of 1000) and voted to endorse Council 24 Executive Director Marty Beil’s concession to have public workers contribute to their pensions and take a serious paycut — all that after his threats to call strikes for his public workers just a few months ago. MTI is in for at least another day, having called off school for Monday before they return on Tuesday. Taking their place, the IBEW International President Ed Hill will be here Tuesday and has called for electricians to come out in their hardhats. The Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association (police union) is having internal issues and Tuesday they’ll decide who’s side they’re on.
A concert has been planned for Monday to rejuvenate the workers as they turn out on their Furlough Day, and Tom Morello and a few other left-ish musicians are playing a set billed “The Battle of Wisconsin” (nice name). In response, the Democratic Party has organized a competing event, a fundraiser for the fourteen senators in Rockford. They’ve named their recital “The Concessions Concert”. I think that show’s what’s on their minds. On that subject, its worth mentioning that Walker and the Legislature really don’t want to make any concessions — there hasn’t been a single report of a political change up inside the legislature. Just as the movement knows they’re making history, Walker knows that he’s going to make history if he gets this thing through and that he’ll be the toast of the town. Someone asked about the Recall petitions, but they’ve been drowned in a sea of “Russ for Guv” signs and 2012 election briefs. The Democrats probably would rather not have people feel like they have collective power over the political process, so no recall from them.
While we’re waiting for the next fight, its important to point out the strengths of the workers’ position here. First, Madison schools will have been closed down for four days Monday with their sick-strikes. That’s huge. They’ve stopped business as usual, forced the district to respond and come out on top; Mayor Dave’s injunction was thrown out of court. MTI also did some groundwork to open childcare centers for children in need while schools have been out. The local press is running spots on the community’s disapproval, which I can’t get a read on, but this whole week I’ve seen more kids with “Union Power!” signs than I can even count — the recall petition I signed Friday was held by a nine-year old with freckles.
The second strength is that the state government is incapacitated. With fourteen senators still out of the state, its not just the Budget Repair bill that’s not going to move — legislation can’t proceed as normal. The State Assembly didn’t do any business except for hearings on the bill from Tuesday on, and they were eventually forced to adjourn until Tuesday. So while we tend to look to strikes as the sole source of power, we have hit some kind of soft spot.
But what’s the strategy here? How are we going to manage a win? No one has come out to really say this, but I think that militants on the ground and the union bureaucracy agree that there’s a dual focus. We need to have control inside the capitol to block the legislature and stop movement on the bill itself, and we need to be out in the field with the rank and file since they’re the only ones who can secure the win. The AFL-CIO, WEAC and SEIU have rented out at least five suites in the Concourse Hotel to coordinate labor activity outside the capitol: meeting with politicians, figuring out where to send their army of staffers, arranging rallies, and mass producing approved placards. Their job is to convince the rank and file that they can’t win this and should accept concessions that will keep their unions together and let the rest of the bill pass. Naturally, our mission is to make sure that doesn’t happen and to give workers the confidence to stick to the demands they were making on Thursday: the whole thing has got to die and we need to kill it. Inside the capitol, the TAA leadership is working with police to try to “keep things civil”, and they’re doing their redirects to activists on the ground — throwing people into phone-banking and using cleaning supplies to tidy up the building. More than a few TAA members have left their battle room in frustration and are looking to activists on the floor for direction.
Rumors come every night that the police are going to force people out — they’ve blocked more hallways and increased police presence inside. Saturday night/Sunday morning they had a squad of riot cops outside the entrance doors to the building. They’re also starting intimidation tactics and counting as well as tearing down peoples’ banners. At one point in the night, some AFSCME workers saw police tearing down their signs and demanded that they put them right back up, so they obviously know what it means to have these posters as signs of worker solidarity and power. Folks coming from out of town have been really taken by things inside the capitol and placed a high premium on activity inside, but keeping the capitol is only important because its much more grassroots controlled (spatially its difficult to plan an event in there), it keeps morale up and it stalls the vote. But the decider in this fight is going to be what labor does out in the field.
Monday is going to be an advance to see what direction the movement will take, concessions or no concessions, and probably most of the hot fighting is going to be Tuesday.
Forward to Tuesday! On Wisconsin!
#5: The Advance (2/22/11)
Without a doubt, today is going to decide the course of the struggle. The last two and a half days have been a pause, with folks moving into position for Tuesday while guarding their backs in case of any unexpected developments. Rumors of strikes have come and gone depending on what the collective sense is of who’s in the lead and what the balance of forces is. The anxiety into Monday was in looking for some maneuvers or developments that would put one side in front of the other, a step forward by some local who to announce an action or a new position on the bill by anyone in the government, but basically everyone has just dug in and stayed the course.
Here are the developments that are going to affect everyone today: The legislature and the police are not waiting around any more and they’re making the first moves today. Late last night, police announced that they would be closing the top floors of the capitol “for cleaning”, and then closed off the South and West wings of the building — where the Assembly and Senate meet. Police have been meeting with a few “representatives” of people who have been staying in the capitol, so a few TAA members and younger folks started marshaling the crowd staying in last night, telling them to leave those places to preserve the good relationship with the police. Unfortunately, for a lot of folks who have been staying inside the reason they’re there has changed from the necessity of testifying and physically stopping a vote to being part of a social scene and preserving the feeling of community that emerged last week. Until a group of us protested and vocalized that we should not be telling people to up and leave because police say so, there was basically no debate about what our role is inside the capitol building. And people are putting the cards on the table: TAA and students close to them are telling people that this vote is going to happen, and its going to go through so we should just let it and its important to preserve our amicable relationship with the police; militants are saying this is the stand we have to make. Obviously no one is advocating confrontations, its just a matter of having our interests remain independent so we can do what we need to do.
They’re securing the capitol for a vote tomorrow and they’re not letting anything stall out any longer. Police are blocking off a ton of space so that no one gets even close to stopping a vote; they’ve set up metal detectors and police dogs. They’re smart enough to let people stay in the building, they’re just keeping them away from vulnerable points and using the cordial relationship they’ve built with occupiers to let it happen. Police are planning on letting people stay to keep up the feeling like people are participating while stripping them of all the power to actually affect the meeting of the votes.
The political maneuvering itself in the Legislature is nothing short of incredible. The Assembly is going to meet, they have a clear majority and they are going to push it through. The only stall for time are the dozens of proposed amendments by Assembly Democrats. The Senate is furious about being embarrassed like they have been and they’re going to start a harassment strategy — they’re going to start taking votes on unrelated issues that they know Senate Democrats are against to raise the cost of their absence. More than that, they’re proposing to split parts of the bill and move them into non-financial legislature which requires a smaller quorum that they do have. Its unclear if they can do this or if they even want to — putting union-busing legislation in non-financial bills is an admission that this has nothing to do with a budget crisis. The outlier here is the rumor that a Senate Republican is going to vote against splitting the bill. The fourteen missing Senators have a hard road ahead, but they know that the only leverage they have is staying away to keep the financial bill from passing; Republicans have clear majority on all the other legislation anyway. Whatever happens, there is an advance coming for the bill today (Tuesday).
Outside of the capitol, the field is incredibly volatile. More and more layers have come out against the bill: the State Street business association issued a statement against the bill, people are carrying signs declaring the support of suburbs (“Verona stands against the bill!”), teachers from across the country are coming in packs. Ian’s Pizza, near the capitol at the top of state street, has a map of all the places in the world that have paid for pizzas to be sent to protestors. Unbelievably, Governor Walker went to a trendy restaurant on the capitol square yesterday and was refused service. There are reports of a lot of rallies in towns across Wisconsin, though the AFL-CIO doesn’t want to broadcast it for fear of counter-rallies. The South Central Federation of Labor, local AFL-CIO council, voted to endorse a general strike and demands to kill the entire bill yesterday. They have no binding power, but as a symbol it does carry weight to let people know that these things are legitimate. The rank and file here are obviously pissed about the concessions their union leaders have made, and it fuels their fire that Republicans have again rejected the concessions. The compromise strategy the labor bureaucracy has been banking on seems like it might not actually pan out, and if that’s the case it boosts the rank and file’s sense that they have to fight to win or all is lost.
The UW Hospital system is also investigating doctors who have been writing sick notes for teachers who went on sick-strikes. They’re trying to clamp down on them to ensure that we don’t see a second wave of sick strikes this week and some students have been collecting signatures telling the hospital board to cease or they’ll organize solidarity actions. Walker has also announced that if labor doesn’t step down and accept the bill, he’s going to start issuing lay-offs next week.
Right now there are too many factors to make a guess on what is going to happen; the police and the legislature have the capitol and the field is very unpredictable — it could explode with everyone so revved up. All we know is that what happens today is going to determine the course of struggle and move one side or the other towards a win.
#6: War of Maneuver (2/24/11)
The strategic and tactical assessments of the situation have shifted a few times since this started last week — our goals and objectives have had to change with the developments here, the idea of what is possible and what a win means. Its all changed and changed again. When we arrived at what seemed like a kind of stalemate over the weekend, both sides were digging in and preparing to deal huge blows: Walker and the Legislature were expected to press the police and push the bill; workers had the threat of a general strike, a huge presence at the capitol and a lot of unrest in the state. Monday night/Tuesday early morning, there was a sense of immediacy that broke the interlude — people on the ground were getting ready to defend against a push by briefing each other on direct actions, legal support and emergency support to unions.
For whatever reason, that didn’t happen and we have shifted out of the war of position, where we use the entrenched strength we’ve built for large advances, into a war of maneuver where smaller skirmishes are used to approach an advantage. Walker announced that if unions don’t back down and let the bill pass, he will issue layoffs to public employees by the thousands — notices have already been sent in advance. As mentioned before, the UW Hospital is also putting pressure on doctors who wrote medical notes for the teacher sick-outs to try and intimidate them into dissociating from the movement. Walker also revealed in a leaked conversation he thought he was having with David Koch that he is also looking to the courts to rule that once the Senate session has commenced the Senators don’t need to physically be there anymore, which would allow the Senate to vote on the bill. As they’re shifting their strategy, they’re also reigning in the rogue elements who threaten the plan — there’s a rumor that Chancellor Biddy Martin may be fired for her (now) overzealous advance on the New Badger Partnership for the UW.
On the workers’ side, they’ve embraced the war of maneuver by picking strategic targets as well. On Tuesday, workers picketed outside of M&I Bank, a major contributor to the Walker campaign; Wednesday a rally was called on the Monona Terrace to have a presence outside the meeting of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce where Walker was giving the keynote address — and Jimmy Hoffa Jr was also reported to have been in attendance! An action has been called today at the Koch Brothers’ lobbying office in Madison; students are organizing a solidarity response to the UW’s harassment of doctors and a rally has been called Friday at the meeting of the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin as they discuss the proposal to split the UW from the system, thereby privatizing the university.
That said, the ground has also shifted inside the capitol where they’ve relaxed some of their tactics and a stable community has arisen, far less dependent on the TAA or other big players. A food table has been erected on the second floor, a departure from the TAA’s table, which had been the central food area previously. A medical/healthcare station has been set up with the generous aid of a local pharmacy cooperative and a hall has been designated for families and children. The information station has of course remained, but people staffing these tables have adopted name tags and are developing a more structured rotation to ensure staffing. Where Tuesday morning police had been encircling the space, tearing down posters and seemed to be making a play for control, as of yesterday it appeared to be much more like the atmosphere late last week — plastered with posters, chanting and sharing, TVs broadcasting the activity of the assembly inside and workers watching closely, responding with cheers or boos. The Assembly is moving slowly through at least a hundred amendments, with Democrats making motions for increased pay for public defenders and other social services as a projection of a different, oppositional spirit of what government should be doing. It is complicated to relate to as independent activists, but objectively necessary.
Backing up for a minute, why has the strategy changed? Quite clearly, the Republicans have no interest in compromising — Walker himself said in the “prank” call that he will not budge and that’s how you win, by breaking the other side. Its undercut the Democrats plan to shoot for a bill without the union-busting and let the rest pass. Its just not a possibility, and hearing Walker say that strengthens the resolve of workers to fight the WHOLE bill. Unfortunately, while the Democrats have been undermined, the labor bureaucracy hasn’t as such. Their signs and language still point to the demand of dropping the attack on collective bargaining, and the sense is that if they get that, they’ll leave. Its uneven to the point that they are willing to harness the power of a general strike to get the Legislature to drop the union-busting aspects of the bill — but if you’re preparing for that kind of power, why not go for the complete victory? Many rank’n filers are arriving at the demand for the whole bill to go, but the union bureaucracy’s printed placards and legitimate power makes it difficult for them to embrace the demand as a collective grouping.
As that’s happening, more layers of the working class have turned out to oppose the other attacks, specifically the attacks on public health, transportation, affirmative action, reproductive rights, sexual orientation, and democratic channels. My read is that if the entire bill is going to be defeated, the alliance between unionists and the layers of the working poor and the diverse public have to be strengthened so that the Republicans don’t offer a concession on collective bargaining and the unions leave the rest of these people high and dry. That in part rests in the common identification as workers, or at least as people who have a similar relationship to capital (though obviously not the same).
A final word: It has become clear that this is a war that is opening up new fronts and developments in other places will affect our chances of victory here. Having 10,000 protestors in Ohio is helping us win here. Having a politician’s rebellion in Indiana, leading to them dropping Right-to-Work (for less) legislation is helping us here. Having solidarity demonstrations across the country is helping us, and its helping us to have people come from around the country boosting our strength on the ground at what both sides are calling “ground zero”. But Walker knows this too and its equally significant that Oklahoma has voted to repeal collective bargaining. Its no coincidence that all these bills are being debated right now across the country, and their language is nearly identical so its obvious that there is a central place that has developed this project and they need to be pressured as well.
#7: How Do We Win? (2/25/11)
Its pretty clear that we are in an all out class war here and everyone seems to know it. Organized labor all across the United States knows it, they’re sending people here and looking at what to do at home; non-union workers know it and they’re moving forward their demands and tactics (like today’s occupation of the GOP office by ADAPT disability activists); and obviously, Walker, the Legislature, the Koch Brothers and the entire capitalist class knows it and they’re out for a complete crushing victory.
There was a moment yesterday when the question was posed, “Will the Republicans reign in Walker?” The answer, I think, is that they will not. Executives at Koch Industries issued a statement saying that after the leaked Walker prank they are more determined than ever to push this thing through. They know that backing away from Walker will cede some ground and they’ve realized that if they can get this thing through completely as is, it will deal a crushing blow to the movement that’s emerged. But their decision is not without its costs: the Wisconsin Professional Police Association issued a statement saying that they will not clear the capitol out, as demanded by the Legislature, and in fact they will be joining the sleep-in. Moreover, the scene inside during the Assembly vote this morning was unbelievable: representatives were throwing paper and cups of water, confronting Republicans chanting “SHAME! SHAME!” There are serious cracks in the order of things, and while there are still many legislators, State Patrol and Capitol Police who may be following orders, these are signs of defection.
As more layers come out against the bill, we’re once again at the position of looking not only at what a win is, but how does that happen? The win here has to be a complete defeat of the bill, no concessions. That’s had to evolve, but as the alliance of forces has come together and we see how much both sides have invested in this, a win must mean that the whole bill goes. If the union-busting parts are thrown out and the rest goes through, not only do we have the objective reality of cuts to everything imaginable, the movement coalition will be shattered because non-union workers will know that they were abandoned. What’s more, we know that the full budget will be unveiled on Tuesday, which will be even worse than this bill. If we have any hope of fighting that budget, we have to have the morale and experience of winning that must come from beating the bill.
So how do we do it? How do we actually kill the whole bill, what does that look like? This is the trickier part. For people who get this far, the notion is typically that we find three Republican Senators to change their vote and we’re in the clear. I think that’s a mistake. First off, we have no guarantee that if they agree to change their votes that they will actually vote that way if the fourteen Senators are recalled. Walker himself said that he wanted to bait them with just this kind of move. Second, and this is less serious, even if we could win like that, the way in which we will matters. If they agree to change their votes and the Democrats come back, that kind of victory would be credited more to the Senators than to the people who made it happen; it has the danger of co-opting the independent working class movement. Obviously, if it comes down to this kind of victory or no victory, take the fucking Senators’ for the victory!
What seems the most sensible, the safest and surest way to beat the bill is to force them to withdraw it. If the Assembly vote is ruled illegal (they violated Assembly rules), it’ll buy some more time and it gives more possibility for them to withdraw the bill from that chamber. More likely, it’ll have to be withdrawn from the Senate since they’re the ones that have the most political pressure on them and have become the symbol for where the movement’s power lies.
Its not for me to say which course must be taken because its contingent on the development of the struggle. But what is clear about both options is that the only way the bill can be either voted down or withdrawn is with immense popular pressure. We’ve gotten this far because of the pressure the movement has put on, through the sit-ins blocking the Legislature from meeting, the sleep-ins at the capitol, the enormous rallies and now the actions on specific targets. The Assembly Democrats have only gone as far as they have because of the critical mass of people and to kill this thing the social cost of the bill will have to raise even more.
It remains to be seen if Walker’s maneuvers, intimidating teachers and doctors, working through the courts and militarizing the capitol, will have the effect he’s hoping they’ll have, or if the coalition can survive the increasing presence of the international unions and their organizing staff who are attempting to undercut the influence and impact of local militants, but if today has shown us anything its that this is a general working class revolt and we should expect more surprises.
#8: Weekend Blues (2/28/11)
The big news this weekend is about cops in the capitol. Friday, most people know, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association said that they would refuse orders to clear out the capitol and instead sleep in to keep the occupation going. Unfortunately, there are three different groups of police working inside the capitol and the WPPA statement is speaking for the city cops here. That leaves the Capitol Police and the State Patrol (Capitol Police actually have their offices in the basement of the capitol and their turf is the capitol and the square surrounding it). The WPPA’s defection Friday was a shock and opened up the question of what’s going to happen inside the capitol? Will the Capitol Police refuse too? Or the State Patrol? Both? Will they come up against each other?
It has been a lot of waiting to see, but my understanding is that the city cops have been pretty openly resistant and the Capitol Police have been issuing orders but not really enforcing them. Example: cops tell the food station to vacate, food station says “no, we’re not leaving” capitol cops say “ok fine.” They say the same thing to the medical station, medical station says “no, we’re not leaving” and they say “ok fine”. And they say it again to the TAA, except the TAA says “OK! We want to preserve our good relationship,” and they willingly clear out and relocate to the Democratic Party office on King Street. So the sense has been that the Capitol Police have to relay their orders, but they won’t enforce them — I’ve heard that Capitol Police aren’t exempt from the bill the way that the other police are, so it might be their way of helping themselves while being in a tough spot.
This whole week there’s been fear of being cleared out of the capitol, which started last Monday when they were closing floors to be “cleaned”. Without exception, every night there’s a rumored time when the doors to the capitol will be locked and people rush from meetings and get-togethers downtown up to the capitol to secure their entry. Friday night was the first “confirmed” time the capitol was to be cleared, which was foiled by the WPPA action and a general convergence to hold the space. Saturday was again supposed to be cleared at 6pm, but just wasn’t enforced — doors were closed so that no one else could enter and there was a concerted call to pack the capitol during the night to keep up the presence. Sunday was when things started to change a little, with rules getting more strict. The police set up some metal detectors and did a trade of three-out/one-in to control traffic and shrink the ratio of protesters. Then it was announced that people would be asked to leave voluntarily at 4pm or risk arrest.
At 4pm the crowd outside the capitol kept up a large presence and thanked people as they came out, some with tears in their eyes, mostly chanting “We are leaving, not retreating” and “We’ll be back”. Cars circling the square honked their horns to the tune of “This is what democracy looks like”. About 1000 protesters committed themselves to staying inside and risking arrest, all the while singing, dancing and chanting loudly to keep their spirits up as the doors were closed and they refused protesters entry into the building. Democratic Assembly representative Brett Hulsey (from Madison’s West Side) addressed the crowd, telling them to leave and give up the capitol, “Now I want you to do the most important part of this campaign, which is to follow me out that door at four o’clock.” The crowd mostly booed him, chanting “hell no, we won’t go” and questioned his place to speak in this space. Meanwhile, a few crafty activists scouted around the building and found a bathroom window and with the aid of a screwdriver made a guerilla entrance to smuggle in food, supplies and, yes, people. As it came to the moment, Capitol Police announced that they would not be arresting anyone nor trying to remove them and news broke that one republican senator would vote “no” to the bill.
This brings us to Monday morning. The doors to the capitol were supposed to be opened at 8am, but remained closed and guarded throughout the day. Apparently, Walker dismissed all remaining city police as well as Capitol Police and their chief, Charles Tubbs, and has since put the State Patrol in charge under the command of Stephen Fitzgerald, who is the father of Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, both Republicans who have aggressively pursued the bill and publicly denounced the protests. (That ain’t good.) At about 1pm the Isthsmus liveblog reported that the State Patrol were sealing the windows of the capitol shut after discovering the traffic through them last night — while this may violate fire code, word is that Madison Fire Department doesn’t have jurisdiction at the capitol, but they are aware. The first move the State Patrol made was to cut off food and supplies to protesters inside, so the only things coming in were apparently smuggled through allies who carry press passes, though as of tonight the Patrol has relaxed their restrictions (they have food again) and once more they will not be moving the protesters.
Obviously this is scary, since the police who have either identified with protesters or been hospitable to them have been dismissed in favor of a more militaristic brand of cops led by the father of the two leading Republican Legislators, but keep in mind that they still have not cleared the capitol and the protesters continued presence is a source of strength and pride. Moreover, the switch to a heavier set of tactics by police and by Walker himself suggests that he knows that he cannot rule by hegemony (people aren’t buying his story on what’s gotta happen) and so he’s shifting to more rule by force. This isn’t definitive, but typically that’s a sign that a regime is unstable and grasping at straws; unfortunately sometimes it works.
As this is happening a number of legal ripostes are coming from the protesters: one is that the closure of the capitol violates the Wisconsin State Constitution, Article 1 Section 4: “The legislature cannot prohibit an individual from entering the capitol or its grounds”; a second one suggests that the Budget Repair bill violates home rule; and then there are some miscellaneous injunctions and restraining orders that have been filed by the ACLU.
Regardless of the fight for the capitol, today does still feel like the calm before a storm. The budget will be unveiled tomorrow night, support for strikes seem to be growing (though there’s no saying who might strike, if anyone), and the danger of a Democratic Party compromise is rearing its ugly head once again.
#9: Change of Venue (3/2/11)
Judge Moeser ruled that the Department of Administration (DOA) could not limit access to the capitol building and granted the restraining order demanded by protesters (I think legal counsel was acquired by WEAC and AFSCME Council 24?). Nonetheless, the entrance to the capitol Tuesday was penned in with guard rails to keep protesters in single file, orange plastic fencing enclosing the lawn and a line of police guarding the doors. Around 80 people have stayed in the capitol, and the DOA’s response to the restraining order was to “satisfy” entry rights by allowing one protester in for everyone who would leave the occupation inside. All this as thousands of people outside chanted “LET US IN!” and “SHAME ON YOU!” Bricklayers from Chicago came out in solidarity with Wisconsin workers and blew up an inflatable suited fat cat strangling a hard-hatted worker with “WISCONSIN” written on him. Laborers from Milwaukee marched in their bright orange LiUNA! shirts and said that any day they’re not here they’re demonstrating back home.
At noon, the city had a meeting at the Dane County District Court to discuss the DOA’s noncompliance with the judicial order. I arrived a little late, the only person in jeans and a t-shirt, but the recap I got was that the judicial branch of the government can only make rulings and has no power to enforce them; that duty belongs to the executive branch of government, of which the DOA is part. So yet another hearing was held at 2:15 again at Dane County Court to determine whether or not the DOA’s actions to limit access to the capitol were constitutional (again, Wisconsin law guarantees access to the capitol and its grounds), with specific deliberation over the one-in one-out process that the DOA was using.
The courtroom itself was completely full in its forty seats and more than one hundred people packed the basement viewing room, where they broadcast the proceedings on a projector. Usually the people who show up to observe court are dressed in business casual attire, but everywhere were ironworkers in worn grey hoodies with hardhats and cotton in their ears, off-duty cops, stateworkers and nurses in uniform. I worked for a lawyer a few years ago and I’ve been in campaigns that have had to use the courts enough to know that the process here was just silly. As the lawyers cross-examined their witnesses, it seemed like this was mostly a stall for time with foolish questions from DOA lawyer, Steven Means, like this one to Marty Beil from AFSCME Council 24,
DOA: “Would you say that you are omniscient?”
Biel: “I’m sorry, did you say omniscient?”
State lawyer: “Objection!”
Judge : “Can we all agree that Mr. Beil is not omniscient?”
The room full of workers gave running commentary during the whole thing in the overflow room. Clapping, hooting, boos and cries like, “BULLSHIT!” were fairly constant through the proceedings in response to the business on the courtroom floor. My sense was that the court has the legal obligation to hear the arguments, but that the judge seemed to lean pretty clearly towards the side of the protesters. Most of the DOA’s arguments were technicalities about the legal weight and language used in the order, with secondary arguments about the rowdiness of protesters who were disturbing business as usual and purportedly making threats to capitol staff.
Its easy to get caught up in the motions and jargon of legalese, so lets break this down for a sec. Judge Moeser issues the restraining order, the DOA ignores it, Judge Albert hears it a second time, the DOA say it was never binding and stalls to keep people out of the capitol on the day that Walker is going to release his biennial budget. The court cases really haven’t been about winning so much as buying time, it seems. And in the course of these two weeks, Walker has tried to shift the sites of power and keeps failing. He started by trying to simply split the working class and pit the unemployed and private sector workers against public workers and keep cops and firefighters out, which failed; he tried to push it through the legislature, and that failed; he tried to use his executive power to kick people out of the capitol by force, hasn’t been able; and now he’s moving through the judiciary and losing. Its getting hard to imagine where this could possibly go from here. The move to the courts, I suspect, was an attempt to remove the pressure of popular power and move into an elite institution with a more controlled atmosphere. And while its true that there’s less popular influence over the judiciary, the courts’ power typically lies in anonymity and obfuscation, which doesn’t really work when you have hundreds of workers packing the courthouse.
That said, having the new budget out has raised the stakes even more, with $900 million to be cut from education, over one million dollars cut from recycling in Madison, insurance companies released of their obligation to cover birth control and more and more. (Budget analysis to come soon.) Another rupture, Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney, a noted anti-immigrant official, has pulled his officers from guard duty saying that they won’t be “palace guards”.
Into Wednesday, 80 occupiers remain, occasionally switching out with fresh activists who take their place, and access to the capitol remains limited.
#10: Inside-Outside (3/3/11)
Court is still in session and access to the capitol is restricted for the fourth consecutive day. About eighty people continue the sit-in inside the capitol, for hope that the combination of popular pressure and favorable judicial order will force the DOA and police to step aside and let the occupation of the capitol resume in full; if they leave, their understanding is that the capitol will be unrecoverable for the movement.
The resolve of people inside is nothing short of heroic. Many of the activists holding the floor at the capitol have been there for days, since last Friday even, committed to staying for every night that it was rumored people would be pushed out. But unlike last week where activists would go to meetings, get food, clean up and rush back to the capitol before being locked out, they have been basically unable to leave since the doors closed Sunday afternoon. Morale has had its highs and lows, higher at the start of the week and lower every day since as the isolation and feeling of powerlessness sets in. I got a call from a comrade inside yesterday and I said to them, “Its like you’re in fucking prison,” to which they responded, “Well actually in prison you could come visit me.”
From reports with occupiers inside, the DOA has been increasing the pressure every day and is trying hard to break them: when food isn’t withheld, its cold and contaminated (and they’re getting sick of macaroni pizza); the heat has been turned off at night to freeze them out; they’re constantly surrounded by a squadron of cops, sometimes with dogs and Republican legislators and their staff gawk at them from the balcony above. Fox News has had a semi-constant live feed camera pointed at occupiers and Republicans are making dehumanizing and insulting public comments, like Senator Glenn Grothman calling them “a bunch of slobs” and saying that they’ve turned the building into a “pigsty”. Nevertheless, activists inside have developed close bonds and are having regular tactical conversations and communicating with allies on the outside, occasionally exchanging in the one-in one-out system that’s been likened to a prisoner exchange by some. Reporters with press passes and those who make appointments to lobby their legislators have some limited access, so long as they pass through a militarized check point.
As this goes on, Republicans have tried to also force the fourteen missing Senators to return. They’ve passed a bill fining each senator $100 for every day that they are missing (as well as some other associated “costs”), stripped their staff of access to supplies and parking and even issued an order for the Senators’ arrest. On the crazy front, the Senate put forth a motion banning prank calls after the Walker fiasco last week. Their strategy seems to turn the situation inside the capitol into something that looks strained and hopeless, broadcast that over national TV and sell that as the essence of this movement: small, doomed and representing full-time activists more than rank’n file workers. Its part of their battle for public opinion, and as things stall out it may have some effect.
There is a lot going on here and a lot to unpack. The situation with occupiers in the capitol is incredibly delicate both for the sake of honoring activists inside and with regards to the overall strategy. There is no doubt that those sitting in are being subject to inhumane conditions intended to encircle them psychologically and ultimately break their resolve. Having spoken to folks inside, there is a lot of serious pain and trauma and they’re having to combat the psychological effects of a prisoner situation while being forced to make critical political decisions. For their allies outside, there is an overwhelming feeling of guilt that they are not inside, not being supportive enough, not able to open the doors. Its a feeling of powerlessness that haunts us.
That being said, focusing on the micro-level shouldn’t lose sight of the objectives. Why are we here? What was the purpose of sleeping in the capitol and holding the space?
The occupation of the capitol began semi-spontaneously and grew to repurpose space into what was referred to in the media as “the workers’ cathedral”. The symbolic nature of this reclaimed capitol is plain to see, but the tactical value was something I think less examined. For one, having a critical mass of people did physically block the legislative sessions, stalled the vote and that power influenced the Democrats to high tail it. It was also a central meeting place to come in from the cold, warm up, have food, network with other workers and organize in a space that was more resilient to the machinations of the labor bureaucracy — it was just plain hard to organize a planned event in there with thousands of people and all the noise, so established institutions couldn’t use their resources like they normally do as leverage. Lastly, and maybe this is related to the symbolism, is that it was a space that built confidence and raised morale.
So then we get back to today, where there is a dedicated group on the inside being prodded and subject to a dehumanizing gaze holding out amidst the worst of circumstances. The questions that arise now are about our (and especially their) evaluations of the weight of importance the capitol holds and if we think this action will lead to returning it to our possession, and if that will win us the fight. We have to ask ourselves how this plays into the goal of killing the entire bill, pushing back the budget and, if we’re gonna just put it all out there, turning this into a workers’ offensive. There’s no easy answer, its all contingent upon the developments of the next few days, but we need to make sure to consider all the elements at play and think about where’s the source of our power.
#11: Regrouping and Reorienting (3/8/11)
A quick note on process: I want to point out that the analysis and reporting that I’ve been doing has been the result of many collective discussions and debates with my comrades, members of Solidarity as well as fellow travelers. Mistakes or misjudgments are my own, and times where I feel like I’ve been off is because I haven’t been able to work through the situation collectively. Givin’ credit where credit’s due!
Let’s start with a recap of last week before getting into where we are now. A week ago, on the last weekend of February, the Legislature tried to close the capitol and ran up against a critical mass of demonstrators and a number of police defections. On Sunday evening, 2/27, about a hundred protesters refused to leave the capitol after a dispersal order and following some short deliberation the Capitol Police announced that they would not attempt any arrests. This all set up an intensified struggle over the capitol — would the continued occupation by a hundred activists reopen the capitol or would the capitol be closed out?
A number of discussions arose during the week about whether the capitol was a distraction or not, sometimes broadbrushing the entire effort, but I think its more complicated than talk of distractions. It certainly was a victory on Sunday night when activists were able to stay in the capitol. And the lawsuits thrown at the Department of Administration Monday hinted that it was possible to reopen the building and resume the capitol protests, especially because there was such a large worker turnout pressuring the judiciary. Tuesday’s court skirmishes were engrossing but by that evening I think it became clear that a number of factors had shifted the situation and the window of opportunity for retaking the capitol was closing.
That the court did not immediately rule that the DOA and the police were breaking the law and violating the constitution suggested that they were trying to manage the fuck-ups of the Walker administration and were using the system of “checks and balances” to check Walker and balance out what could have been an explosive situation. The legal proceedings continued past Wednesday (way longer than they should have), with a final order that the DOA couldn’t keep the building closed but they didn’t have to admit anyone after business hours and no one was to sleep there — to top it off, the court order to wasn’t go into effect until Tuesday, March 8th, which was a tacit acceptance of the DOA’s methods and a cue that the DOA had a few days to finish up any remaining business with the court’s blessing. When they started letting people back in, they had diffused the anger that was building over Walker, the Legislature and the DOA’s political repression and managed to control it by letting people have access to the capitol but stripping them of the power that they had to potentially block a vote through mass action, or at least keep a close eye on what was happening.
Alongside the court ruling was a set of maneuvers by the labor bureaucracy and the Democratic Party. The AFL-CIO staff in the capitol kept telling people not to disobey the dispersal order on 2/27 and 2/28 and then undermined grassroots activists by making back room deals with police inside the capitol, finally withdrawing staff and material support from the capitol effort early last week. The Democratic Party told people to leave the capitol (Hulsey twice, others a few times as well) and that their presence was getting in the way of the legislative effort to stop Walker. In the final days of the sleep-in, police appointed a new group (who were not selected by occupiers) to “negotiate”, i.e. relay orders to evacuate. It should be clear that the Democratic Party and labor leadership did not want to keep the mass protests in the capitol going — the mass protests in the capitol enabled workers’ to connect with other workers and grassroots activists, self-organize and push for a set of increasingly militant demands and tactics, which forced the labor-dems to respond and do things they would normally never do — like flee the state or call sick-outs. By withdrawing support and literally telling people to leave, they hoped to reconvene the protests in an arena that was more under their control, out on the square where you need access to permits and special equipment to be heard (like PA’s).
I won’t go into the events of the capitol’s evacuation itself, save for mentioning a few hundred people from the No Concessions Funeral March making it past a police check-point to get into the capitol briefly, but interested parties should read the excellent account offered by a comrade, Rebecca.
On Friday morning, the capitol had been cleared of its trespassers and the building had been transformed from a redecorated and repurposed workers’ open house to a locked-down quasi-military zone. To add insult to injury, the DOA claimed it would cost $7.5 million to clean up the capitol, though they had to reduce the number to a more “appropriate” $350,000 after some push back. Even though the capitol is “open”, they have effectively neutralized the potential for disruptions and mass action, and the court really did the DOA a favor by intervening and forcing them to have a more subtle approach than they were employing.
This, I think, concludes the first part of the Battle for Wisconsin and now that the objective situation has changed a process of regroupment and reorientation is beginning. The contest for the capitol is pretty much over, and the power that was there has been circumvented by giving limited access and controlling the space. As this has happened, our sense of social time is slowing from developments every six hours to developments every day and a half — or so it feels. I had numerous conversations with people last week who felt like they had to resume much of their normal life and were trying to figure out how to balance it so as to continue the struggle. There’s a near consensus that we’ve moved from an expectation of a sharp conclusion to a much longer and more drawn out fight. In regrouping, there are many meetings, sure, but Friday and Saturday there must have been more parties and get-togethers happening than I could count. Transitioning out of this acute struggle and into whatever comes next, people did take time to celebrate themselves and each other, share some stories about this modern day folktale and heal a little.
The calculations about our tactics and strategy will necessarily have to change. What will move us towards defeating the bill as well as the budget now that the capitol situation is contained? What will be the new sites of grassroots, rank’n file assembly and forum? How do we solidify a set of demands that includes the majority of the working class, beyond organized labor and into a workers’ movement? I draw these up in the abstract, but they’re the living questions that people are grappling with in the here and now.
Some notable developments are the No Concessions contingent organized by National Nurses United, who have constructed a fairly class conscious, militant analysis — even for those who don’t subscribe to it totally, there is a meme that’s growing in popularity that the unions offered to pay for the fake crisis, and even that Walker rejected, so now the concessions should be off the table. Saturday, thousands of farmers will drive a tractorcade up to the capitol in protest of cuts to social services that affect rural workers. Freedom Inc, a racial-justice nonprofit led by women of color, has been organizing a series of town halls around Madison to mobilize communities of color against the bill and the budget and to intervene in the mainly-white protests. The Labor and Working Class Studies Project has also been organizing a series of educationals, such as an upcoming session on the “Economics of the Wisconsin Labor Struggle”.
Obviously there is and will be a lot of experimentation as the movement reorients towards all of the new developments, but the battle is hardly over. The struggle continues…
#12: Sneak Attack (3/12/11)
Wednesday morning we were all preparing for a compromise. The media blew up with stories that Scott Walker was willing to keep collective bargaining in place in exchange for the return of the fourteen Democrats and the passage of the rest of the bill, and activists on the ground scrambled looking for ways to strengthen their coalition and resist a compromise that could remove organized labor from the fight in order to conquer the rest of the working class.
The odd thing was that Wednesday evening, instead of continuing what appeared to be a very effective strategy to move forward on the austerity and disperse the movement, Republicans split the bill and moved to ramrod it through the Legislature that night; the bill has stalled out for as long as it has because they don’t have quorum to pass it as financial legislation, so they’ve split the bill to have a non-financial union-busting bill that they can pass with the numbers they have now. The Senate passed the union-busting split bill Wednesday night with no debate and with only 8 pages missing from over 140 total pages.
The response by protesters was furious: I must have gotten at least four phone calls and a dozen text messages saying “GET TO THE CAPITOL” — every network had been tapped. A group managed to get into the building and unlocked doors to let the rest of the crowd flood in, and thousands packed the capitol for another night reminiscent of the first week. Early Thursday morning most of the crowd left the capitol, but as the Assembly prepared to go into session mid-morning a number of activists organized in affinity groups linked arms and prepared to block the Assembly Chambers. Once again, Capitol Police asked the group to leave politely, saying that once they leave the capitol doors will be unlocked. While some left voluntarily a few dozen activists refused to comply and remained seated. At around 11am the State Patrol was ordered to drag out deadweight activists one by one as cameras flashed away. (For more on the dynamic inside, see Brenda Konkel’s blog.)
Outside, I took the bus to the capitol about 10am. Most of the other passengers had buttons or signs at their feet and at the MLK stop half the bus dismounted and quick-stepped up the block to the capitol rally. Cars have started honking to the tune of “This is what democracy looks like”, often in call and response, so even though the numbers around the building seemed to be in the ballpark of only 12,000, cars and workers around the city were clearly paying attention and trying to be a part of the protest however they could. Close to 10:30, students from Madison’s East and West High school walked out and got to the capitol from opposite sides of town; West marched up State Street, East up East Washington. As they were cheered on by the crowd, they packed the stairs outside the East Washington entrance and after about fifteen minutes Jesse Jackson said a few words I couldn’t hear and led them away from the building a second time. (Where they went I couldn’t say, though its possible he took them back to school like he did the first week.) After clearing the crowd inside, the Assembly passed the bill Thursday afternoon while Firefighters took out hundreds of thousands of their dollars from M&I Bank, forcing it close for the day.
Friday, Walker signed the bill. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk filed for an emergency order to prevent the law from being published, but was refused by Judge Amy Smith, and so the law goes into effect March 25th. Walker also backed off of some of the layoff notices in an attempt to ease the situation. Of course the damage is done and a wave of retirements has already ensued as older workers scramble to keep their hard earned pensions.
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I’m left trying to understand, “what the hell just happened?” Why such a violent shift from one tactic to another? I really can’t tell if this is a case of one hand washing the other, or if it exemplifies conflict among the ruling class. In favor of a conflict thesis, a number of business publications have been quite upset with Walker’s heavy handed tactics and have been trying to backpedal so that they don’t lose the whole enchilada, but Walker and the far-rightists know just how important a victory is for them in Wisconsin and may have rammed it through in spite of the Democrats to have their way. The New York Times Business Page printed an article suggesting that its not the pay that’s “bankrupting” states, but its inefficient provisions in union contracts:
“The solution today is not to cut both the pay and the benefits of public workers, as would happen if workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere lost their right to bargain.The solution is to get rid of the deferred benefits that make no sense — the wasteful health plans, the pensions that start at age 55 and still let retirees draw a full salary elsewhere, the definitions of disability that treat herniated discs as incurable…A more efficient government is one that does not need quite so many employees to do the same work. Layoffs are not always necessary, either. Attrition can reduce a payroll fairly quickly, as has happened in Indiana. “ What’s more, they suggest that the problem with government is that they “face no competition”, setting itself up for arguments for increased privatization.
Another example is the Forbes article, “Gov. Walker Has Lost the War”. There they talk about the danger of the bill uniting the working class in opposition: “While Governor Walker may yet succeed in getting his budget repair bill through the legislative process and accomplish his goal of reducing collective bargaining to a shell of its former self, the larger battle appears to already be lost…He will also have prompted the nation’s unions to work together for a common objective– a feat that would have seemed impossible just one month ago…The damage has already been done.” And back in January, there was the Economist article that started this all, which also argues in favor of productivity as the way to handle the problem, rather than “banning unions outright”.
But its still not clear if that is the dominant logic. My partner Kate pointed out that the Republicans have spent all of their political capital already and are set to be recalled, even if they’ll just be replaced by Democrats. They themselves have nothing to lose by doing this because they’re probably already on their way out. And we should all know by now that its harder to undo something than to stop it in the first place, so probably we can expect that this will do its damage and if Democrats retake the legislature they’ll likely leave behind many portions of the bill. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but we shouldn’t take lighly Mike Tate’s recent comment in the New York Times, “From a policy perspective, this is terrible. But from a political perspective, he could not have handed us a bigger gift.” Democrats still do stand to benefit from this, even as the working class reels. (And now the fourteen Senators are on their way back.)
The Legislature doesn’t have any sessions until April 5th, so there’s nothing to block at the capitol and the last few days’ violent interruption notwithstanding we have to figure out what now. I don’t think anyone could have predicted Wednesday night’s split and rush, but I think we continue the transition into a new fight…