Report from Madison: Pro-Union Crowds Swamp Tea Party
To Win, Prepare to Strike Wisconsin!
Over 100,000 union supporters occupied the Wisconsin state capitol, filled Capitol Square and the
whole of downtown Madison on February 19, completely overwhelming a right-wing Tea Party rally
in support of Governor Scott Walker and his union-busting bill. (Photo: Andy Manis/Associated Press)
MADISON, Wisconsin, February 20 – Saturday was billed as the big face-off between opponents of Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting “Budget Repair Bill” and his supporters in the right-wing Tea Party movement. It was more of a smack-down. Labor won the contest hands-down, as the hordes of tea-baggers failed to materialize. While the media estimated 2,000 at the noontime pro-Walker rally, from overhead photos it looked more like a few hundred, and those numbers quickly dwindled. When they arrived, thousands of union supporters were already there, and by mid-afternoon over 100,000 had completely surrounded Capitol Square (even the state police admitted to 60,000 in the streets and 8,000 inside). For hours they marched and marched around the square, chanting “Kill the Bill” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Scott Walker has got to go.” The public employees union AFSCME called a rally on the Capitol steps at 4 p.m., and tens of thousands stayed until it ended an hour and a half later, even as the temperature sank below freezing and the wind picked up.
Party rally at the Capitol: at most a few hundred.
The right-wingers were a motley crew, mostly from out of town. NBC TV 15 interviewed a dimwitted private school teacher who said she was not interested in higher pay or benefits, only the children. An in-your-face yahoo decked out in biker gear (matching black leather motorcycle jacket and skull cap) taunted the crowd, which drowned him out. He carried a sign saying, “Weren’t You the Antiwar Protesters, Too?” Many of the older ones undoubtedly were, showing that in part what’s happening in Wisconsin, a swing state almost equally divided between red (Republican) and blue (Democrat), is a continuation of what is euphemistically called the “culture wars.” Sarah Palin was a no-show, pleading the need to stand by her man in the Wassilla to Nome, Alaska dog sled race. Pro-union protesters carried signs suggesting that Walker follow Palin’s example and quit as governor; another one read, “Sarah Palin Shot My Dog.” Tea Party supporters chanted feebly “trim the fat,” to which the labor crowd responded, “Don’t drink the tea” (referring to the mass suicide in Jonestown by drinking Kool-Aid).
Today’s New York Times says that “The demonstrations have been more organized than organic, with some of the Democratic Party’s top strategists in Madison and Washington helping to assemble giant crowds.” We reported yesterday on the appearance by Democrat Jesse Jackson and the Democratic politics of labor leaders like AFL-CIO International president Richard Trumka, as well as the fact that many demonstrators are laboring under the illusion that this partner party of American capitalism will somehow defeat Walker. There were quite a few signs today hailing the “Fab(ulous) 14,” referring to the Democratic state senators who left Wisconsin in order to prevent a vote on the union-busting bill. But what was most striking about the outpouring on Saturday was precisely that it was not a regimented marching of the troops. Instead there were lots and lots of hand-lettered signs, including quite a few that it is unlikely that the Democratic National Committee approved. A selection:
“Screw us and We Multiply” (a favorite);
“Is the National Guard going to teach my class?” (referring to the governor’s threat to bring in the National Guard to break any strike);
“Welcome to Wisconsin – Leave Your Rights At the Border”;
“You Can Pry My Union Card From My Cold Dead Hand”;
“Hey Scott, I Wanted to Screw My Fourth Grade Teacher, Too”;
“This is Wisconsin, We Love Beer, At Our Unions, With Our Unions, Not Tea-Parties.”
Another variant: “We Have Keg Parties, Not Tea Parties,” and “No Tea Party, No Klan in Wisconsin.”
“Aaron Rogers Is a Union Rep” (referring to the star quarterback of the Green Bay Packers);
“Northern Wisconsin Loves Our Teachers”;
“Midwife for Labor”;
“Don't Balance the Budget on the Backs of Our Children”; and
“The Workers Revolution Has Begun” (this one carried by a Madison teacher).
There were numerous references to the recent protests in Egypt, several noting that while they had forced out a dictator in Cairo while Wisconsin is still saddled with one. Ian’s Pizza announced it had stopped delivering pies except for orders coming in from as far away as Egypt paying to take pizzas to the square to offer to demonstrators. Meanwhile, a group of AFSCME moms, dads and kids handed out free hot dogs. (We were famished and they were great.) And in the middle of the Tea Party rally a huge column of yellow Union Cabs circled the square honking their horns in solidarity with labor. All scripted from Washington? As if.
Signs referred to Nazi Germany, citing Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous lines (“They came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out”). Also, “May 1933, Hitler Bans Trade Unions.” Immigrants’ rights groups mobilized as well, including the Madison-area Unión de Trabajadores Inmigrantes (UTI – Immigrant Workers Union) which marched behind a banner proclaiming “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!” At the late-afternoon rally when a speaker tried to get the crowd to chant this classic slogan of labor solidarity, most didn’t know the second line (an injury to all). But in struggle people pick up the language of protest quickly.
The police were back in force on Saturday, including inside the Capitol, after being largely absent (or more likely invisible) the day before. Citing the “threat” of “violence” because of the presence of pro- and anti-Walker protesters, they brought in what looked to be several hundred cops from around the state. In addition to the Capitol Police, Dane County Sheriff’s Department and black-uniformed Wisconsin State Patrol in their paratrooper boots there were deputies from Brown, Rock, Vernon, Dodge, Columbia, Grant, Sauk and Waukesha counties, police from the town of Two Rivers and the village of Lodi, and what seemed to be the entire force from Manitowoc on Lake Michigan. In addition, reported by the New York Times but not by the local media, there were snipers stationed on the rooftops with their rifles trained on the crowds.
“Pretty scary,” remarked an older demonstrator to The Internationalist as a group of State Patrol marched up in formation near us. “Does it remind you of anything?” he asked. You mean police attacks on protesters against the Vietnam War? “Yup.” He went on to recount how the state police acted as stormtroopers, gratuitously attacking demonstrators, including smashing his wife in the face, during an October 1967 student protest against recruiters for Dow Chemical (the makers of napalm) on the UW Madison campus. They’re back, but this time the students are not isolated, and the working class is mobilized in the streets.
Yet for all the determination and militancy of the crowds, the labor bureaucrats and capitalist Democrats are still trying to entice labor-hater Walker with offers of concessions. “It has never been about the money,” repeated Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC). How dangerous this line is was underscored by Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who said in a press conference that big cuts in education and services are in the works, and “The only way local governments will be able to handle it is without collective bargaining” – i.e., by ripping up union contracts. (Fitzgerald didn’t say that the reason for this is that the governor plans to slash state aid in his budget, which he has now delayed until March 1 in hopes that protests over the attack on unions will blow over by then.) The right-wingers are out to destroy unions and workers’ rights in good part in order to drive down public sector workers’ wages and gut their benefits.
All the talk of concessions and Democrats’ legislative maneuvering from hotel rooms in Chicago and Rockford, Illinois will not move Scott Walker, who has repeatedly declared there is “nothing to negotiate.” The Republicans are convinced (from experience) that the Democrats and bureaucrats will wimp out in the end. Why? Because they all share with the right-wingers a loyalty to American capitalism. McCarthy in the 1950s and the Tea Party today get their strength because they are on the cutting edge of a bipartisan capitalist war drive, including a war on workers and democratic rights “at home.” Obama and the Democrats are bailing out the banks, going after teachers and trying to gut union power in order to save the system and make the workers pay for the capitalist crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Wisconsin workers will have to break the chains which bind them to the Democrats and undertake the struggle to build a workers party that is prepared to wage this class battle through to victory, and keep on fighting for a workers government.
In yesterday’s rally an AFSCME leader called on demonstrators, “When I say union, you say power.” Tens of thousands of voices replied thunderously, “union power, union power.” But that power is not some magical quality, you have to use or lose it. And the time to use it is now, before it is too late. “What happens the day after?” one protester asked The Internationalist, meaning the day after the Republican legislative majority predictably votes for the union-busting “budget repair” bill. The Democrats can talk all they want about “winning the battle of public opinion,” but that won’t win this fight. Calls for a recall election to oust Walker would come too late. And besides, what would they replace him with? A capitalist Democrat who wants to slash workers’ pay by thousands of dollars a year? What counts is mobilizing union muscle in strike action, beginning by shutting down state government and moving quickly to a statewide general strike. That’s “illegal”? As they say, the only illegal strike is one that loses. But we can win.
An indoor rally is scheduled for today at noon because of a winter storm watch, and more big rallies at noon and 5 p.m. on Monday. Madison teachers are vowing to stay out another day, and even though Milwaukee is threatening to bring in scab substitutes (“volunteers”), this will likely fall flat. But just holding out is not enough. We have to escalate. The issue ultimately is which class shall rule. As we have said before, “Playing by the bosses’ rules is a losing game – Labor’s gotta play hardball to win.” As the past week of escalating protests shows, workers here have the numbers and the will to fight, what’s lacking is a class-struggle leadership to oust the present pro-capitalist misleaders of labor. Workers and their unions need to start organizing now to strike Wisconsin. ■
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