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.