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Signs from Madison: Working Class Solidarity and an Occupied Capital Building

Posted February 21, 2011 by nicolas_lampert

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The massive labor demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin have reached day six and some patterns have emerged that are as recognizable as they are unexpected. First and foremost, this is a protest movement unlike one that I have ever seen before. This is not a leftist movement, a student-dominated movement, or a fringe activist movement. Instead, it is a mainstream, middle class movement.

The people that have gathered around the State Capital Building are everyday people - school teachers, nurses, health workers, sanitation workers, high school students, college students, fire fighters, and others. Even some police officers have joined the ranks of protesters, some with signs that read "Police for Labor."

This is a movement of middle class people who are pissed off and taking to the streets because Governor Walker's proposed bill will economically hurt them. This is a labor movement that is fighting for it's very life. Win now and make a major stand against corporate power or watch Wisconsin become a "right to work" state and watch the dominoes fall, watch as other Republican governors attack collective bargaining rights for public employee unions in Ohio, New Jersey, and beyond.

This movement has exploded out of nowhere. People knew Scott Walker was bad news, but many did not think he would act so quickly and with such force. In five short weeks he has turned Wisconsin upside down and shown zero ability to reason or compromise.

He threatened to de-certify public employee unions until he realized that he did not have the power to do so. Thus, last week he rushed through the "Budget Repair Bill" that would severely weaken public employee unions under the guise of solving the states budget crisis. Mind you, Wisconsin was projected to have a surplus in 2011 when Walker took office, but he passed massive corporate tax breaks that created a deficit. From the start, this has been a manufactured crisis - an attack on collective bargaining rights that follows the wish list of his major campaign donors, including the Koch Brothers who help bankroll the Tea Party Movement.

Walker's plan would set Wisconsin's labor standards back fifty-plus years. Under his proposal:
-Public employee unions would be allowed to negotiate only on wages.
-Increases in wages for public employees would be capped at the consumer price index, and locals would have to go to referendum to exceed those limits.
-Public employee unions could no longer require dues, and employers could not collect them.
-State employees would be required to contribute 5 percent of their pay to their pension.
-State employees would be required to pay 12 percent of their health care costs.
-Faculty and academic staff in the UW System would lose their right to collectively bargain.

In short, the public employee unions in Wisconsin would be destroyed and state workers would have to pay a substantial increase in health care and pension costs. Mind you, many state workers are barely getting by. This hits home for me as a lecturer in the UW system. The corporatization of the university system has already taken place. Most instructors are part-time teachers or graduate TA's. Good health care benefits are one of the only perks left. Seeing my paycheck drop $400-500 a month would be devastating. Grade school and college students in Wisconsin would watch the quality of their education decline rapidly as good teachers would leave the profession in droves. College students would also see their tuition sky rocket so it is key that teachers and students stand together in this fight.

Hitting people in their wallets and attacking collective bargaining rights has resulted in a massive protest movement. On Thursday, February 10th word got out about Walker's plan. On Monday, students and workers began marching on the State Capital Building. 5,000 people. 10,000 people. 25,000 people. By Wednesday, the State Capital Building was occupied.

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On Thursday, Feb. 17th - the day of the vote - 14 Democratic Senators walked out of the Capital Building and drove across state lines to Illinois, making it impossible for a vote to take place because quorum could not be reached. Had they not fled, the Bill would have passed. Republicans hold a majority in the Senate and the House and they would have voted in a block. In short, the 14 Democratic Senators stood up for working class people and joined the people's movement. What they did was heroic.

On Friday, the Capital Building remained occupied and crowds surged to 50,000. Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to the crowd outside and said, "Wisconsin, You are the Super Bowl Champions of the Labor Movement." The crowd went wild. His speech then became moderate and mainstream, but perhaps that was appropriate. The movement and the people on the streets are moderate and mainstream.

On Saturday, 2,500-5,000 Tea Baggers showed up. 70,000 people on the side of labor made their speeches and presence irrelevant. On Sunday (the day of this post), a winter storm hit and the protests outside the Capital Building dwindled to small numbers. (The Capital Building remains occupied inside and huge labor protests are called for Monday and Tuesday.)

So what happens next? Who knows. Spontaneous movements are as beautiful as they are unexpected. Both sides have dug in. I do not expect Gov. Walker to concede one inch. He is a pawn of the far-right and is attempting to make a name for himself at the expense of 99.9% of the population. He does not compromise or listen to his opposition.

So far, organized labor is taking an incredible stand and will not concede on collective bargaining rights. It saddens me to no end that WEAC was willing to concede on State employees paying higher rates for health care and pension costs. This will cost some people their homes.

Additionally, there is no word on when the 14 Democratic Senators will return to Wisconsin. The rumor is that they will not return until the attack on collective bargaining is removed from the bill.

In the meanwhile, Walker has all but guaranteed that a massive recall movement will take place one year from now. (One of the best chants I heard inside the Capital Building was a thunderous "We Will, We Will, Recall You! set to the Queen anthem.)

Most importantly, solidarity is building. Walker tried to divide working class people by exempting firefighters and police officers from the cuts. His plan backfired. Firefighters and MANY police officers have come out in support of labor and joined the protest movement. If solidarity can be maintained, workers will win this battle. If public workers continue to organize and walk out, this struggle will result in a major victory.

In short, this is class war. Working class people against Walker and the billionaires who fund him. This is school teachers against Fox News. This is a labor battle that will have a ripple impact throughout the US and beyond. This is a stand against privatization.

Keep your eyes on Wisconsin. History is taking place. The labor movement has awakened.

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