Sunday, February 27, 2011

Report from Madison

This is a firsthand report early yesterday morning from the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, where union workers have been staging a protest against the governor's attempt to strip them of collective bargaining rights. It was forwarded to us by our friends at WV Citizen Action Group. -MH


I just made a day trip yesterday (Friday) to Madison, and just got back to Chicago a few minutes ago (it's 1:10 am on Saturday morning as I begin to write this) after driving most of the way in snow. These comments are hasty, and I'm tired, but wanted to share my impressions before going to bed. If you deem them worthy, please feel free to circulate widely!

I went up specifically to support Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), who have mobilized to support the workers' struggle against Governor Scott Walker. I didn't contact any colleagues at the School for Workers, nor did I contact any unions. Thus, not much should be read into my comments. But, still, I thought they might be worth sharing.

There were no major events scheduled Friday--and there is a major mobilization later today (on Saturday).

Some thoughts/comments:
First, it IS inspiring to walk inside the Capitol building in Madison. I've never been inside before, and it is truly a beautiful building. And the halls were filled with passionate, determined, chanting protestors, from a myriad of unions. The walls are covered with posters, many referring--sometimes in the most unfavorable terms--to Governor Walker. A lot of obscene references to the Koch Brothers, as well as Walker being a "prostitute" for the Kochs--and a lot of play on their name (which apparently is pronounced "coke"). Many references to the prank call that Governor Walker responded to as if the caller was David Koch. There are literally thousands of messages from around the world posted on the walls. IVAW put up big posters that said call the Wisconsin National Guard and ask them not to harass protesters.

There were people on the bottom floor, where drumming was going on all day, and where there was an open microphone--anyone could come to the mic and tell their story! And people on the bottom were"mc-ing" the events throughout the day, leading inspired chants, singing, etc. Lots of high energy, and great chants--such as "This is what democracy looks like"--"Solidarity Forever!" was sung many times.

There were many people there, mainly from unions--and there were a wide range of unions, both public sector and private. People kept coming into the building, staying a while, and then leaving, so no telling how many people came through today, but the place stayed pretty full all day. This was joined by people outside, ringing the building, and then even more people walking around the Capitol on the sidewalks.

Above them, on the second level, there were people hanging over the railing, trying to hear what they were saying on the first floor. Many banners--"Tax the Rich"; one from the prison guards that said something like "We keep the criminals locked up, now lock up this criminal;" a few references to Jesus; etc., etc. These banners were generally hand painted or hand printed. My 10 year old son, who went with me, especially liked the one comparing Walker to Valdemoort(sp?)--I probably screwed that up, but you get the idea!

And on the third floor--both the second and third were open in the center, so you can see down to the first floor--were even more people. Word during the afternoon was that the police were planning to try to clear the Capitol about 4 pm, and I noticed State Troopers heading up to the third floor a little after three. It didn't look good. However, nothing happened. In the evening, the State Troopers were gone, and ordinary people were lining the rails.

People were incredibly friendly and inspiring. Wide range of people--from babies to people in their 80s, if not older. The crowd was almost all white, but this is Madison. Nonetheless, there was a nice sign hanging that condemned racism, and people seemed to treat each other with great respect.

There were so many people who came in from out of state that one man carried a sign that said, "I live here." I saw people from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union from the West Coast, along with members from the United Transportation Union #100, with their distinctive jackets that said, "We move New York!"

Incidentally, people were being very neat and keeping the Capitol clean. There were signs asking people not to write on the bathroom walls. There also were signs saying, "This is a peaceful protest."

One thing in the back of at least some of our heads was what about the cops? They had not been armored-up, and were pretty approachable; they were relaxed. Still, there were apprehensions about them coming in and trying to clear the Capitol. However, the highlight of the evening was when 50-75 people came marching in, carrying signs saying "Cops for Labor" and "Deputies (as in Deputy Sheriffs) for Democracy!"

They marched around the second floor rotunda--where I was at the time--and people were thanking them, and some even gave them "high-fives." It was clear they liked the approval. Other cops told us that they weren't going to try to remove the protesters last night. (Obviously, I don't know what the plan is for tonight--or the future.)

There was some concern for the safety of the building in light of large numbers of people using it. The cops told us they were expecting 80-100,000 people to attend the rally today. It seems clear that the protesters are NOT leaving any time sooner.

All in all, a very inspiring day.

But some specific comments that might generate discussion:
-- Almost everyone in the building appeared to be union members. With
few exceptions, no participation of the left (and I include here the anti-war left) nor students--the latter especially shocking since this is the home of the University of Wisconsin. One reason I heard was, because the unions had never supported the anti-war movement--and I have no idea if this was true or not--the left wasn't going to support the unions. Whether true or not, the left is making a big mistake by staying away: people ARE trying to make sense of this idiot governor, and what he's doing to people's lives.

-- My sense--and this needs to be researched, and confirmed or rejected--is that while there were a large number of union members present, the large number of them present were there on their own or with a small group of co-workers, and not brought there in a unified group by their union. I didn't see any identifiable union leaders there. I didn't see many union jackets or t-shirts over jackets: I did see some AFSCME and SEIU items, and some teacher union items, but not in general,

-- The member of IVAW that I'm closest to, and had been there since Wednesday, traveling to Madison after participating in the protest in Indianapolis, said he could find no apparent leadership of the protest. Basically, it looked like the one with the microphone (theMCs) were the leaders. I didn't see efforts to launch workshops or do educational work on any general basis. The place was high on emotion,but no observable (to an outsider, anyway) rational direction. and/or discussion.

My sense--again, this is just from me--is that the narrowness of business unionism that remains is hindering development of solidarity with other groups/sectors. We've got to find ways to expand this thinking into social justice unionism.

But it was also clear that this mobilization was being done by rank-and-filers and low-level staffers, and not upper echelon "leaders."

I'm exhausted and must quit. Hope this provides some food for thought.

Kim Scipes
National Writers Union, Chicago
Author: "AFL-CIO's Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?" (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010).

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