All over the nation today, at noon, people held rallies in support of the men and women of Wisconsin’s public unions. The folks at MoveOn, who were helping with the logistics, where calling it “The Rally to Save the American Dream.” The photo accompanying this post comes from my friend Murph, who spent the afternoon marching in Lansing. (Here’s hoping, in the spirit of solidarity, he doesn’t mind my using the photo.) And he wasn’t the only local person doing good work this week. Aaron Stark, an Ypsilanti-area resident who grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, spent the last few days on the ground in Madison. He’s his first-person report:
I attended the Madison “Kill the Bill” rallies on Tuesday 2/22 and Wednesday 2/23, when I was in town for an impromptu family visit. (Full disclosure: one of my family members works for the State of Wisconsin.) Mark has already discussed the overall political context of these events, so I’ll just focus on the events in Madison that I took part in.
The rallies in front of the Wisconsin Capitol, and the Capitol presence itself, were pretty amazing. The participants were by no means all old Madison ‘60s hippies, as Governor Walker has claimed. Entering the Capitol for the first time around 6 PM on Tuesday, I saw a lot of Madison teachers coming in after work (this was the first day that they had been ordered back to school). I saw parents with their kids. I saw University of Wisconsin students, some unofficially representing the UW Marching Band (the next day, one young woman played “Solidarity Forever” on her trombone upon the request of a passer-by). I saw many UW-Madison Teaching Assistants, faculty and staff, as well as nurses and other health-care workers. On the Wednesday lunch hour, I saw many private-sector union members—people from a Harley-Davidson plant, union pipefitters, and retirees from many fields. I also saw several signs indicating that some people not in a union supported the rallies too. For example, one sign read: “Non-union contractor who supports collective bargaining.” On Wednesday, a contingent of teachers from Los Angeles arrived and marched around the Capitol square. Call them “outside agitators” if you want, but wherever people were from, they recognized that variants of Walker’s union-busting tactics are being spread to other states, with the help of both Republican and Democratic politicians, and that Wisconsin’s fight was their fight too.
The inside of the Capitol, or at least the public portions that I had access to, were decorated with a panoply of signs, fliers, and political art. There were political slogans—many of the creative and humorous variety that have already been posted around the web. These were not just about Walker and labor: there were also a fair number of signs and fliers about Bush’s and now Obama’s wars, and about the neoliberal takeover of the last 30 years. I saw several people reading many of the signs carefully—it was kind of like an art exhibition. The atmosphere was energetic and fun, not menacing. Official politicos in suits walked here and there, including probably some of Walker’s staff, without harassment as far as I could tell. There was also mutual aid: free food and drink with signs asking people to take only what they need, toiletries for those staying the night, and many signs (made by the protesters) asking people to pick up after themselves. Somehow despite the deafening noise, people felt safe enough and/or tired enough to rest in sleeping bags tucked into random corners of the Capitol at all hours of the day. Relations with the police were cordial at least when I was there, although there were rumors now and then that the occupation was about to be cleared by state troopers. Gov. Walker had originally tried to split off the police and the firefighters from the rest of the public sector workers, by not having the budget repair bill apply to police/firefighters. But they sided with the rest of the public sector workers. Accordingly, the firefighters’ union always got huge cheers whenever they marched in full gear playing their bagpipes, and the police got many “thank you’s” from protesters as well. It truly was an educational venue, a people’s building, in as non-ironic a sense as possible. This Facebook group has been putting up videos which give a sense of what it is like in the Capitol.
The overall presence in the Capitol was not coordinated by anyone. TAA-Madison (the AFT local for UW-Madison TAs) was coordinating a lot of the legislative work– requesting people to come to various rooms in the Capitol to testify, to serve on phone banks, etc. But as far as I know, the occupation of the Capitol started and was maintained by rank-and-file union members and students. It surprised the union leadership and the Democratic leadership as much as it surprised everyone else. Sure, big national speakers have come to Madison since it started, but I get the sense that they were responding to what was happening on the ground, rather than leading it. So far this has worked, but I think this may become problematic as the struggle goes on longer and takes a more national scope. I would not be surprised to see tensions growing in the days to come between the union/DP leadership and the people on the ground: the leadership may be more conciliatory to the Governor than the people in and around the Capitol.
Even outside the Capitol, the atmosphere was highly politicized. As I walked down Madison’s State Street from the Capitol to the UW-Madison campus, I noticed lots of people talking about this, not just those heading to or from the rallies. There were anti-Walker, pro-collective-bargaining signs along State Street and in the windows of many small businesses along State Street (whose clientele are mostly state workers). One slogan, which I wish I had seen in entrepreneur-hyping Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti, was “Smart innovators are happy to pay fair taxes for good government”. Admittedly, I didn’t have time to go many other places other than downtown on this visit, and the atmosphere may have been different there.
Now for a little speculation as to why this began in Madison. Although Madison is a liberal college town comparable in some ways to Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor is smaller and richer than Madison. My impression is that Ann Arbor does not have as much of a labor base as Madison does. Being both the state capitol and the site of the state’s flagship university, as well as the site of large plants like Kraft-Oscar Meyer, Madison is not as much of a one-industry town as Ann Arbor, and it has much more “class diversity” than Ann Arbor. My high school (Madison East, the one whose students walked out early on in the rallies) includes neighborhoods with large working-class Black, Hmong, Laotian, and Latino populations; in addition to white working-class neighborhoods, the old 60s radical areas along Williamson Street, and (oddly) also one of the richest areas in Madison, Maple Bluff. As I mentioned above, the idea of Madison as a paradise for old rich liberals is off-base. The grain of truth to this is that there are left institutions that have survived in Madison which have died out in many other U.S. cities. One example is WORT-FM community radio, a non-NPR, non-profit, community-run radio station that has provided crucial support for left and labor movements—including the anti-Walker protests– for 35 years. The state’s history also plays a part: a Democratic Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Frank Zeidler, was in office from 1948 to 1960; Governor and then Senator “Fighting Bob” LaFollette pushed many early 20th century progressive reforms (workers’ compensation, direct election of Senators, women’s suffrage…), and in the 19th century Wisconsin was a center of abolitionism in the Upper Midwest. Left commentator Doug Henwood, in a recent blog post on Wisconsin, asked UW professor Joel Rogers “[how the] same state could have spawned Joe McCarthy and Robert LaFollette, or Scott Walker and Russ Feingold. Rogers explained that politics in Wisconsin has historically been driven by an alliance of industrial workers and capital-intensive dairy farmers on the left, opposed on the right by a mainly Catholic rural population. They’re pretty evenly divided, thus the contrasting figures and tight elections.”
Given the energy that I saw on the 9th and 10th day of the protests, I don’t see this ending any time soon. As just one example, on Friday a disability rights group occupied the Madison GOP headquarters to protest another portion of the budget repair bill– what appears to be a power grab intended to drastically change Wisconsin’s Medicaid program with little legislative oversight.