An account of a recent trip to the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, which have erupted over the Governors plan to revoke collective bargaining rights to state employees.
On Monday, February 21st, me and a Wild Rose Collective comrade traveled to Madison to take part in the protests against Governor Scott Walker's plan to basically revoke collective bargaining rights from public workers. Since this bill emerged, large protests have taken place on the state capitol and 14 Democratic state senators have left to Illinois with the aim to block the vote by taking the possibility of quorum away. As the days have passed, and the country's eyes have looked to Wisconsin, this situation is beginning to look like the most important battle organized labor (and by extension, the working class) has faced since the air traffic controllers strike of 1981. This is an account of our impressions, which although limited, will hopefully be of some use to those who are not able to make it to Madison.
We showed up around 10 AM when a couple of hundred or so people were circulating the capitol with various anti-bill picket signs. The majority of the signs were from Madison Teachers Inc. and AFSCME, with a significant number from SEIU. These unions seem to be the ones throwing the most resources in this fight, although there are a number of progressive non-profits, such as Wisconsin Wave , who seem to be as well. Gradually, more and more people filtered in from the winding streets of downtown. By the time the speeches and music were about to start, thousands were outside on the capitol steps, spilling out into the ice and snow covered lawn.
Tom Morrello of Rage Against the Machine, Wayne Kramer of MC5 fame, and the lead singers of Rise Against and Street Dogs played short sets, which were mostly folksy lefty songs or acoustic renditions of the before-mentioned RATM and Bob Marley. Morrello read a letter of support from protesters in Egypt, directed at us in Wisconsin, which excited the crowd quite a bit. Also, seeing what were probably middle aged teachers jumping in the air to Guthrie's “This Land Is Your Land” was a sight to see.
After the speeches by various union staff and the like, we eventually made it inside the capitol building, where thousands of others had already been rallying. Inside, the sound was nearly indescribable. It was a thunderous explosion of homemade drums, vuvuzelas , chanting and yelling, further amplified by the cavernous marble structure. At the edge of the massive crowd, what resembled a mini-city operated. There was a seemingly endless supply of free food (mainly pizza) and beverages, large ride boards, free toiletries, sleeping gear for borrowing, teams of people cleaning and picking up trash, a lost and found and even a lending library. Student, union, socialist and anarchist groups have been utilizing various rooms for meetings and there are also quiet study rooms (for later in the night) and game rooms. Small stands for poster making, children's activities, cell phone charging and petition signing also filled the labyrinth of hallways.
A countless number of signs and posters hung from the rotunda's railing and on columns everywhere. The vast majority of them centered around anti-Walker and bill rhetoric, and not many were of a radical nature (with the exception of the IWW's stuff, which had no message on them). In fact, there were probably hundreds of computer printed out fliers reminding that this is a “peaceful protest”. We've heard that the AFL-CIO has people taking down “incendiary” signs and posters, which seems to make sense. The sheer amount of people involved would seem to guarantee that slogans and messages outside the Democratic/liberal discourse would be seen, yet there were very few. Also, almost all the posters and signs were stuck up with blue painter's tape, which signifies that these items are, in fact, being monitored closely.
Despite the exciting atmosphere inside the capitol, there doesn't seem to be much of an opportunity for assemblies or talking amongst protesters. It had the aura of a concert, with people on stage instructing everyone else, rather than a space for workers and students to talk and plan. Any hope for this situation to go further than what the liberals want is probably going to depend on this space being created.
There have been a couple of groups we noticed or knew of overtly trying to do this, namely the IWW and Socialist Alternative. Socialist Alternative organized an open forum at a leftist bookstore centered around calling for a general strike and IWW dual-carders played a significant role in advocating that the South Central Labor Federation(SCLF) adopt an endorsement of a general strike, if the bill passes. The SCLF did, in fact, endorse the idea of a general strike later than night in a meeting. However, they only have the authority to endorse the idea, not make a call. The affiliated unions would have to decide on this themselves. It will be interesting to see what happens with this. It seems that regional labor federations often have a higher proportion of activists and radicals than the staff or rank-and-file of the affiliate unions themselves.
Nevertheless, both the protests and the endorsement of the idea of a general strike are significant developments. We hope that those pushing for working-class self-organization and activity continue to do so, and that this defensive fight is won, so that the prospects of us taking the offensive are increased.
Is there anybody voicing
Is there anybody voicing these pertinent critiques there (e.g. "Despite the exciting atmosphere inside the capitol, there doesn't seem to be much of an opportunity for assemblies or talking amongst protesters. It had the aura of a concert, with people on stage instructing everyone else, rather than a space for workers and students to talk and plan.")? Did you?
I'm not sure what local
I'm not sure what local radicals are doing as it is has been somewhat difficult to link up with anyone or even figure what they're doing. As for me, no, as a single protester in a sea of 10,000 (Monday) or 100,000 (today), don't see much I can do about it, unfortunately, particularly because of the concert atmosphere.
There might not be much you
There might not be much you can do about it, but you can do something to get out of the sense of bored demoralisation that usually comes from seeing the same old same old and feeling you can't do anything about it. In my experience, you can at least make yourself feel a bit livelier by altering your relation to the situation - by arguing with everyone about their banners or whatever, by being rude and/or friendly to people (depending on how entrenched they are in their ideologies), by having an attitude "I'm going to get something out of this miserable situation even if it's just to discover the nuances of how petrified people are ". Though maybe this has something to do with my age - being over twice yours, you can often get away with more without it coming to physical blows ( e.g. getting angry/sarcastic in the demos against the pension reforms here in France in autumn; e.g. once talking to a couple of anarchists I'd only just met, a large CGT union truck with very loud music slowly passed, making conversation impossible...I approached the driver to ask him if he could turn down the music...he wound the window up, ignoring me...so at the back of the open truck I pulled the plug on the music...some of the lefty demonstrators complainingly went "Ohhhhh!", so in the relative silence me and these anarchists started shouting things like "Sarkozy'll have no problems with passive demonstrations like this, where you can't even have a conversation; he must be well pleased..."; the demo stewards run up to us threateningly, but backed off when they saw we were 'old' and not right-wingers...ok, it only lasted a minute or so, but it made us feel a bit better...anything's better than putting up with the tedium of a routine concert-type lefty demo, but you first have to overcome the sense of indifference and lethargy in yourself).
Samotnaf, a demonstration of
Samotnaf, a demonstration of a hundred thousand or even ten thousand workers may be the 'same old same old' in France, but it isn't in Wisconsin. I don't think Juan was describing only tedium, indifference and demoralisation.
We must remain critical, but sheesh, allow us be a bit excited about what's going on too!
Rachel: You misunderstood me:
Rachel: You misunderstood me: I too have been excited by events in Wisconsin. The point I was making was in response to Juan Conatz's
and his clearly depressed report from this thread
In my experience, the excitement of the renewal of significant movements (particulary after the general quietness for such a long time as in the USA) needs to develop beyond the hesitations and indifference if things aren't to lose their momentum and lead to some kind of coitus interruptus, and the far more chronic depression that follows defeat and retreat, particularly by those who later feel they could have done and risked more. Just want to try to do my bit to helping to make that not happen.
Fair enough. All useful.
Fair enough. All useful.
Samotnaf wrote: e.g. getting
That's quite something Samotnaf. Here in Boston we have a mobile sound system on a bike cart and we occasionally get complaints about the sound level from elder demonstrators. Luckily none of them have attempted to pull our plug yet! Perhaps the context is different where you are, but as I see it music can be an important part of a demonstration, raising energy levels and serving as a welcome break from boring chants and speeches. My response to those who don't like it is to suggest they walk elsewhere in the demo! Those who appreciate loud music will be happy to congregate around the sound system and those who don't like it don't have to.
I found Samotnaf's post interesting, but if he were to try that here he would come off as a lone crank with no appreciation for youth culture.
I have little appreciation
I have little appreciation for culture, youth or otherwise ("Culture - the commodity that sells all the others"). The CGT (Communist Party-dominated) often dominate, particularly the ends of demos, with their vans of very loud music that are meant to fill the empty space between people. People singing, drumming, making their own music is social and, depending on what the music is and hopefully the absence of pretensions by those making the music, I can appreciate that. But some van drowning out communication is a monologue that has to be broken. It is certainly no better than
yeah a big van with really
yeah a big van with really loud speakers sounds a bit different than a mobile street cart…
but yeah interesting posts all around!
I think that part of the
I think that part of the problem (and not part of the solution) is the pervasive use of dominating music in these situations - and which Juan Conatz seemed to tire of in his original post. It's as if you can only have fun if there's a sound system. This is quite different from the blaring out of The Doors' "Light my fire" during the incendiary ghetto riots in Detroit in 1967, or the use of massive speakers to blare out The Beatles' "Piggies" song at Columbia University in the late 60s to wind up the cops. Or the songs of the movement in South Africa during the 80s when there'd be a massive demo chanting improvised songs as they approached the heavily armed cops, who later admitted to being really scared by the passion and intensity of this singing, despite their weaponry. Compare this with this New York Herald Tribune report from this period :
The difference is like a parody of the stark contrast between music as part of a developing community of struggle - non-specialist music, and music as part of the commodity economy. And, regardless of whether the music is "radical" or not, the need for specialist musicians to raise energy levels, as mK ultra put it, substitutes for raising energy levels yourselves, just another part of the system of external authority representing our desires - but in a cultural, rather than political, form. The fact that someone who wants to subvert this might be considered a "crank" (to quote mK ultra), is indicative of how "youth culture" functions as a means of imposing the conformism of repressive normality, even as it presents itself as rebellious.
The Stalinist and other
The Stalinist and other unions in France use loud music to drown out possibilities of workers talking to each other on demonstrations - workers are coming together, what for, to get their ears blasted? The French union goons used to use blasts on whistles but the louder the din the better for their policing activity and the possibilities of any effective struggle are reduced. The noise intensifies as the demonstration winds down.
Samotnaf - maybe doing that
Samotnaf - maybe doing that kind of prankism stuff entertains you, but that doesn't sound much like my thing. Besides, if I was going to do anything I'd try and get Maoists and Trots to argue with each other and than watch. ;)
And just to clarify, inside the capitol when I was there on Monday was that atmosphere. Outside, both Monday and Saturday, was, besides the periods of time there was musical acts and speakers mostly quieter outside of the chants.
I watched about half that
I watched about half that video of the cop in the building from the other thread, that constant drumming would drive me up the wall and it was impossible to make out what he was saying even with the megaphone. I think it'd be difficult to make inroads into that, you'd have to get some people together and confront the musicians directly, and it'd be more like knocking on the door of a noisy party than anything else.
wouldn't want to piss off the
wouldn't want to piss off the hippie drum circle??? that's what it is right?
Quote: Samotnaf - maybe doing
Wasn't really "prankism" so much as a practical attempt to resolve a practical problem - trying to have a conversation. For years people have complained about the CGT's use of overwhelming sound systems - just this once it got stopped (though I've heard of other places in France last autumn where others have managed to turn off the Union's music).
And, by the way (and
And, by the way (and apologies for what might seem like a slight derailment), whilst we're on the subject of music:
Once saw a funny use of that song by some Americans against the Iraqi war here in France, giving it an ironic twist, in which they make out that US soldiers are singing in Iraq “This land is our land…” Isn't the song now taught in American schools and haven't there been many calls for it to be made the new US National Anthem? (I know the commonly sung version omits two of Guthrie’s little known but crucial verses that would not sit well as the Song of State –
Did the version the teachers jumped in the air to include these subversive lines? Or would the unions object (if they noticed)?
The version sung included
The version sung included those lines as it was sung by the guitarist from Rage Against the Machine (who incidentally is a Wob)
We had the same
We had the same concert/protests here in New Zealand last year around employment changes. It enabled the union officials to completely control the event. In fact, megaphones in the crowd that tried to push for a march were swamped by the official music. Everyone turned up, had a sing and a sausage, and went home. Ridiculous.
lesson: buy a bigger better
lesson: buy a bigger better sound system :P
aka out organize the fuckers or quit complaining...
At a recent demo near where I
At a recent demo near where I live the unions basically tried to fuck the community section of it by controlling a sound system and sadly did pretty effective job. Drowning out any chance of addressing the crowd meant most people when home after hearing the union speakers (no others were allowed) because there wasn't a chance to really talk after the speakers had pretty much told us to leave. I suppose taking a megaphone would be a good start.
Wrote this a year ago
Wrote this a year ago yesterday, just read through it again. Kinda forgot that I was saying we needed assemblies and talking to and with each other rather than at each other like was more common in WI. Me and Oliver talked about this a lot when we were there and the whole Occupy movement coming around to me confirms our outlook on that front. I just didn't remember that was something that I immediately thought of, I thought Oliver mentioned it to me and I agreed, for some reason that's how I remember it.
Reading the description of being in the capitol when it was occupied...it really doesn't do it justice. The feeling and sound was indescribable. It just gave you constant chills and it will be something I remember for the rest of my life, or until something tops it! The loudest, most thundering noise I have ever heard. I also remember the chaos of the situation, not being able to get information or in contact with people, the rumors of a general strike starting that weekend, etc. I think I was frantically texting all day...haha
Thanks for reviving this
Thanks for reviving this Juan! I must have skimmed through it before but lost it in all the excitement. I'm still disappointed that I only got to Wisconsin right after the occupation was removed, though when the capitol was re-occupied I think the feeling and sound were also indescribable, and feel the same way about them.
This caught my eye. I've been thinking a lot lately about the differences between what a "general strike" means in Europe, and what it would mean in the US.
Here in Spain there are already plans for two regional general strikes, called by the minority unions, and it is very possible that the UGT and CCOO will call for a one-day general strike, which will do nothing.
Many of the comrades in the CNT (I'm not sure whether it's the organization's position or not) think that the only way to beat the labor reform is an indefinite general strike, but it is very tricky to begin thinking about whether the minority unions together have the power to call for a national, indefinite general strike (or when they might have this power). There is also a discussion about whether, or when, it will be worthwhile to call for a general strike if this would also seriously weaken, or destroy, many of their job branches and would not have any echo among the working class. Add to this the very real differences between some of them (for example we've heard recently about a labor dispute between the CGT and a janitor on its payroll) and you can get an idea of how complicated it is.
This is quite different from the problems we have in the US. The alternative unions in Spain, together, have a density probably hundreds of times that of the IWW, and several times larger than that of the UE, for example. But there's also an important difference in labor law and the union traditions that follow it. In Spain only registered unions have the power to call strikes. In the US the right to strike is (theoretically) a natural right of the workers, one that almost every union signs away during the period of contracts. So when the unions in the US claim that they can't call a general strike, they aren't just shifting the blame. They really can't. (And when some of the Trotskyist groups have slogans like "Call on the trade-union leadership to call for a one-day general strike", it just shows how far removed from reality they are.)
So, if the trade unions can't call for a general strike, who can? Nobody knows. And this is where, I think, things get really interesting. In Spain the idea of a general strike that isn't called by the unions just doesn't make any sense - people don't get it. In the US, they do, even if they haven't realized it yet. If we consider that the Detroit uprising of 1967 or the 2005 May Day protests were the closest things we've seen to general strikes since 1946, then we see that in the first case the unions were completely opposed, and in the second they were at best well-wishers, but not active organizers.
However, both of these happened before people recovered the terminology of "General Strike", in Wisconsin and then in Oakland. Recovering the term itself if really important, but I think there is another evolution to note: in WI, everyone was asking "Who's organizing the General Strike? When is it happening?" In Oakland, there was nothing like this - since it didn't even cross most people's minds to wait for the unions, except for labor history professors. In Oakland, the General Strike was called by the General Assembly, acting on its own authority. The strike didn't happen, as such, but this is still a major step forward.
I don't know how to say what I want to draw from this, except that I think we really need to re-read Luxemburg, James, and Glaberman. It seems to me that precisely because of the weakness of social democracy in the US there is a chance for a dialectical breakthrough - i.e. that it is precisely because of the very impossibility of a general strike in the US that, if one happened, it could only happen because of informal organization and spontaneous action among the workers, i.e. a political recomposition, and it would be incomparable to what the Western Europeans think of as a General Strike.
Oliver that's really
Oliver that's really interesting. On the labor law stuff - what's the law say should happen with a strike in Spain? Do companies replace the workers during the strike? After the strike?
I found this, which seems
I found this, which seems worth quoting in full:
All of the emphases are mine, I hope they aren't too much. I'm surprised to see that "this right may be exercised through [...] groups of workers." I don't know what that means, in practice.
For instance, the teachers movement here has been largely assembly-ist, and while the CCOO are the strongest union in the sector, the assemblies have often been more radical than CCOO (no real surprise). So, when the assemblies have called for a strike, the CNT and CGT have "legalized" it by sending the convocations to the government, allowing any workers to strike regardless of their union affiliation. This included one period where the CCOO convoked a one-day strike while the assemblies called for three (or perhaps two), which was followed by the CNT and CGT. One of the interesting points to me about this is that they have specifically not called for strikes on their own, but have said that they will always legalize the strikes called for by the assemblies. (I believe that the CGT at one point backed away from this and did not legalize one of the strikes called by the assemblies - but I'm not absolutely sure, and, in any case, the strike was made legal by the CNT.)
So, perhaps that clause about "groups of workers" has a lot of fine print, or means something different - or the spaniards don't know the labor law?
The other tricky thing is "minimum services". As it says, for government workers all strikes must maintain "minimum services". For example, at my school, during the greatest strike participation, there weren't normal classes, but there were enough staff to take care of the children, etc. As you can see, there's some pretty heavy consequences for any strikes that don't maintain minimum services. (This was also a big deal during the Metro cleaners' strike a few years ago.)
Thanks Oliver. Sorry to be
Thanks Oliver. Sorry to be slow and/or wonky here - in a legal strike, "The employer may not replace the striking workers unless they fail to provide the necessary safety and maintenance services."
Can the company hire scabs for the duration of the strike?
It sounds like the initial difference between legal/illegal is about limits on what employers can do. So a legal strike is a strike where the state governs employer responses to a larger degree than an illegal strike. Presumably there's another level of illegality where the state actively prohibits some activities (like injunctions in the US).
On the labour courts stuff, is that worked out in advance or after the fact? (I ask because in the US this happens after the fact and there's good reasons for employers to break the law then deal with the charge afterward, and in my experience getting fired then getting back wages can really suck, even though it sucks less than not getting back wages.)
Anyway, just curious about this kind of industrial relations minutia. I think you raised other really interesting points in your earlier comment, I don't mean to drag discussion away from that stuff.
Hey Nate, I think most of
I think most of your questions are answered by the text I quoted above. It seems the legality is usually discussed in the courts afterwards, which presumably then allows or disallows employer sanctions.
I don't know the legal mechanisms of state intervention, but when the air traffic controllers struck a few years ago, the "Socialist" president used the army to do their jobs and arrested strikers who did not go back to work. The CNT comrades say that a lot of the labor laws have not changed since the time of Franco, so I'm sure that there are legal mechanisms allowing for use of state force to break any strikes that go too far.
Interior Minister of Spain
Thanks again Oliver. That's
Thanks again Oliver. That's super interesting about the continuity between the handling of labor stuff from Franco to the Socialists.
The bit that's unclear to me here is the part about replacement workers. This hangup may be me having some condition I've caught from reading too much about US labor law stuff, it's my understanding that the legal system in Spain is pretty different but I don't know in what way. This langauge that you quoted, "The employer may not replace the striking workers," if that was part of legislation in the US it would be subject to some kind of court case and it could be interpreted by a judge to mean at least three different things. 1) Employers can hire scabs but must rehire strikers after a strike 2) Employers can't hire scabs but do not have to rehire strikers after a strike 3) Employers can't hire scabs and must rehire strikers after a strike. That may sound ludicrous but apparently clear-sounding common sense language like "may not replace" is regularly interpreted by courts in any number of ways based on what legal doctrines are brought to bear, speculation on the intent of legislators, ideas about property rights etc. (Sort of similar, US courts have interpreted labor contracts that don't contain no strike clauses to imply a legally binding no strike clause if there's a grievance or arbitration clause.) Maybe in Spain it's different and in Spanish law words are less ambiguous.
These different possible interpretations relate to disruption and security. No scabs=more disruptive strike, no permanent replacements=more ability to strike with confidence of return to work. Neither of which really are the case in the US most of the time. A few years ago four union locals at my work coordinated and struck together. For US standards it was a large and long-lasting strike, like 3,000 people and lasted 2 1/2 weeks. And was basically a total failure. Management hired scabs and work got done with minimal disruption and after the strike, some people were forced out of a job and others who were active in the strike were really scared they'd be forced out too. So if Spanish workers can count on not having scabs used and/or can be sure to get their jobs back, that I think that's an important difference for the comparison between Spain and the US and the role of the state in shaping strike activity. If you're not sure that's cool, I don't expect you to do research on this, I just wondered if it was something covered in an orientation with your union or something.