In-person report: Wisconsin at front line of class war

From the March-April 2011 issue of News & Letters:

Wisconsin at front line of class war

Madison, Wisc.–Day after day, tens of thousands of people–and over 100,000 on Feb. 26–have taken to the streets around the Wisconsin State Capitol building. They filled the Capitol rotunda with protest signs and rallies for over a week. As you walk towards the Capitol you can hear loud chanting and drum playing spilling out of the building and into the streets to protest Governor Walker’s “budget repair bill.”

All agree that this is an anti-union, anti-labor bill that takes away collective bargaining rights. Its goal is to break public sector unions. It will reduce wages, benefits and pensions. It’s a blatant attempt to destroy the livelihoods of working people. As one protester told me, “This bill is simply intolerable and inhuman.”

Governor Walker alleges that dismantling public sector collective bargaining rights is made necessary by a $3.6 billion deficit in the next budget, which many are calling false. He says it’s also due to a $137 million shortfall this year. This is after the Fiscal Bureau told legislators that the state would end the year with a surplus of $121.4 million.

The $137 million deficit Walker uses as an excuse to crush collective bargaining is a result of tax cuts and incentives for special interest groups that helped fund his campaign, all of which Walker pushed through since taking office. Walker also says, falsely, that the alternative to unionbusting is kicking 200,000 children off Medicaid.

Teachers, janitors, firefighters, construction workers, union and non-union workers, young and old, have gathered here in an unprecedented show of support against this anti-union, anti-labor bill. At the University of Wisconsin a mile away, students and professors walked out of classes and marched to the Capitol to join the protesters.

The Senate Democrats walked out to the cheers of the protesters and fled the state rather than stay and vote on the bill. Wisconsin doctors came to the Capitol and offered to write physician’s notes for teachers so they could call in sick and attend the protest. The huge outpouring has included support rallies all over the country (see p. 9). Supporters from other countries around the world like Iran, Egypt and Sweden have been calling a local pizza place near the Capitol and sending pizzas to the protesters. People have been camping out overnight in the Capitol rotunda.

To show his support, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz proposed that Madison’s unionized workers have their collective bargaining contracts extended through the end of 2012 in order “to ensure that all employees can continue to receive current pension and health benefits for the next two years.” He did this before the unionbusting budget repair bill passed the state House on Friday.

Here is how one protester sees the situation: “We have a bunch of our members here from Laborers Local 319 in Marseilles, Ill., to show support and solidarity for all the workers here in Wisconsin. What’s going on is a tragedy, and we are committed to doing whatever we can to help these folks out. If the bill doesn’t get killed here, we are all in trouble. It’s a direct threat against organized labor. It will decide whether unions will exist or not.

“We are here for the future of our children. These kids aren’t going to have any opportunities if they break our backs and we can’t have collective bargaining. We will be finished. We will lose a lot of benefits. This is corporate America and big business, along with the Republican Party. They got their people in place now and they figure this is the perfect opportunity to strike against us. They say it’s about balancing the budget, but it’s really about breaking up the unions.

“This is our livelihood they are trying to take away. They want everyone out there working for just $10 an hour. These people have no idea what it is that our families sacrifice and suffer every day, just to pay our bills. We’re construction workers and it’s seasonal work, so we know what it is like to be jobless. We go through it every year.

“Kids are getting out of high school, out of college, and there are no jobs. It’s time working-class people rise up. We’ve got the power in this country if we exercise it. We need strong leadership and guidance and you see that here today. People have to make the commitment to be here, day after day in large numbers.

“People like Walker do not want to see us out here, thousands of people congregating and supporting each other. They want to keep us divided, arguing and fighting among ourselves. They don’t want us to have the power. We’ve got all the trades out here, even non-union workers supporting the unions. If you take down our standards, you take down their standards too.

“It’s a crime what is going on in this country. We should all be prospering. Corporate America is making huge profits at our expense. The CEOs get $300 million salaries, that’s way out of line. Then our people are the ones who fight the wars. They don’t send their people. They talk about patriotism and they don’t even know what it is.”

Another protester gave voice to what so many are feeling and told News & Letters: “This is historic what is happening here, we are making history. What they are doing cannot be tolerated.”

–Suzanne Rose


See also other articles in this issue on support rallies for Wisconsin workers:

Rally in Asheville, N.C.
Michigan support rally
I love LA, not job cuts
Protest Brown’s cuts
NYC pro-union rallies

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