The Internationalist  
February 2011  

Report from Madison: “We’re Making History”

Wisconsin Unions Vote to Prepare a General Strike – The Time to Act Is Now

Union demonstrators outside the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison protesting union-busting bill.
(Photo: Eric Thayer/Getty Images

MADISON, Wisconsin, February 22 – After the mammoth turnout for the pro-labor march on Saturday, union-busting governor Scott Walker hoped they would just dribble away. No such luck. This mobilization has staying power: thousands came out amid the sleet, slush and freezing rain on Sunday, followed by the now-standard twice-daily demonstrations on Monday despite bitter cold. And as the labor protests continue, there is beginning to be discussion of a key element that has been missing so far: strike action. More particularly, a general strike. This could have a dramatic impact in Ohio and throughout the country.

Most of the action on Sunday (February 20) was indoors, but it was impressive to see groups of four or five hardy souls, and sometimes just one or two, slogging away, circling the Capitol building all day long with their signs. They were determined to make their voices heard. About 11 a.m. a family drove up in a station wagon and vats of hot cider, to pass out to the demonstrators. They weren’t union members but come from a “strong labor family,” and figured they would do their bit. It was sure welcome.

In the middle of the soggy day, we ran across a young couple with a sign, “This Is What Class Warfare Looks Like.” That was quite striking after all the chants of “This is what democracy looks like.” They’re from Rice Lake in northern Wisconsin, about half-way between Eau Claire and Superior, and had driven 250 miles to Madison show their opposition to the attack on the unions. Actually, they had come down on Wednesday, the day after the de facto occupation of the Capitol started. Back in Rice Lake that day, they heard, there was a protest of several hundred students, teachers and others. So they headed back north to be there on Thursday, when over 1,000 protested in the streets (out of a total population of 8,000). Then on Friday it was back to Madison. That takes real dedication, and they’re not alone.

This gives the lie to Walker’s claim that people in small-town Wisconsin are with him, and it’s only a bunch of Mad Town liberals and out-of-staters causing trouble in the capital. It confirms the conclusion from yesterday, that the Tea Party right-wingers are vastly outnumbered. Working people all across the state are up in arms over his assault on labor, and way up in Rice Lake people know what’s what.

Inside the Capitol there was, as usual, a non-stop happening in the Rotunda, with endless drumming, dancing, speeches and cheering by the several thousand protesters gathered there from noon until late at night. What stood out was the issue of the Democratic Party. Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin spoke to the crowd as did state Rep. Brett Hulsey, wearing an orange T-shirt saying “Assembly Democrats Fighting for Working Families” as all the Democratic legislators are now wearing. The office doors of Hulsey and other state Assembly Democrats are plastered with post-its praising their stance. Yet while the Democrats have opposed the provisions of the governor’s bill eliminating bargaining rights for almost all public employees, they support the provisions of the budget bill that would sock those same workers with an 8 percent pay cut, slashing thousands of dollars from their wages, supposedly to pay for a non-existent budget “deficit.”

Up on the first tier balcony were signs begging “Obama Join Us” and “Obama Come to Madison” to support the protest. At one point in the afternoon the crowd even chanted for him to come. The Democratic president had gotten protesters’ hopes up on Thursday in an interview with a Milwaukee TV channel by stating the obvious, that the Wisconsin bill “seems like an assault on unions,” and saying one should not “vilify” public workers. At the same time he defended imposing a pay freeze on federal workers. But it’s one thing to make some vaguely pro-worker remarks and to send his political operation “Organizing for America” into the fray; it’s something else to go toe-to-toe with a Republican governor who proclaims that Ronald Reagan is his model (comparing his action against unions today with Reagan’s smashing of the PATCO air controllers union in 1981). Obama himself has repeatedly expressed his admiration of Reagan and political agreement with the right-wing Republican’s attack on the “excesses of the 1960s and 1970s,” on the expansion of government and his support for “entrepreneurship.”

Be Careful What You Wish For Dept.: A prominent banner says “Stewart/Colbert, We Came to Your Rally, Now Come to Ours.” On Monday the Jon Stewart program on Comedy Central cable television did do a segment on the protests in Madison, mocking both sides. To ridicule the comparisons made by many demonstrators between the struggle against the dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the battle against the union-busting governor Walker in Wisconsin, Stewart even brought in a camel. But the hapless dromedary slipped on the icy sidewalk and got a hoof caught in one of the metal police barricades outside the Capitol, thrashing about as it tried to get free. So in addition to dumping on the fight for workers’ rights Stewart trampled on animal rights with his offensive stunt and abusive mistreatment. Meanwhile, inside the Capitol a herd of would-be reindeer paraded through the Rotunda, adding to the carnival atmosphere.

Madison Teachers Inc. holds jam-packed union meeting of some 3,000 members on Sunday, February 20. They voted to stay out of work for a fourth straight day.
(Internationalist photo)

In the afternoon, the Madison teachers union MTI held an important union meeting. For the first time in her 20-year experience, a member told us, the meeting brought out some 3,000 of the 4,000 members. A vote was held on whether to go back to work immediately (after “sicking out” three days last week), or to wait until Tuesday so they could join in the rallies Monday when state workers will be on furlough. The vote was so close that they had everyone leave the room and file in through separate doors. The final tally was 741 to 731 in favor of staying out Monday. A major reason for this debilitating division was that Mary Bell, head of WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council), the state’s largest teacher union, urged teachers to return on Monday – a graphic example of how narrow trade unionism undercuts labor militancy.

Meanwhile, through all of this, testimony on the Walker anti-labor bill continued in Room 328 NW, as it has around the clock with only short recesses for more than 90 hours since last Tuesday. With each person getting only 2 minutes to make their points, that’s over 2,500 people testifying, an amazing number. As Kevin Gibbons, co-president of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin/Madison, explained in an interview with The Internationalist, these hearings are intimately connected with the de facto occupation of the Capitol building. Last Tuesday, February 15, hundreds of students had lined up to testify before a state Assembly committee. Late in the evening, the Republicans on the committee decided to end the hearings. With hundreds of students in the hallway clamoring to be heard, the Democratic members decided to keep the hearings going without their Republican colleagues.

Since those hearings have been continuing non-stop, state law requires that the building be kept open to the public for the duration. Hence the occupation. But although it may appear “part rock concert, part World Cup match, part high school pep rally and part massive slumber party,” as the Washington Post (18 February) described the scene in the Capitol building, such an operation requires a lot of organization. The TAA, which kicked off the protests by calling a march from the UW Madison campus on Monday that was joined by 1,300 students, set up shop in one of the offices of the occupied capitol. It is now a beehive of activity, with more than a dozen activists entering names of petition signers, committees assigned to media, outreach, clean-up, food and every other aspect. There are charging stations for people’s mobile phones and laptops. There is a sign-up board for housing as scores, perhaps hundreds of students have arrived to join the occupation. Someone paid for rooms at a nearby hotel so that activists can shower (and maybe catch a few winks).

As the Post recounted, “The smell of sweat and pizza drifted through the building's marbled halls.” In addition to the pies which several different pizza shops are now delivering, we saw teams arriving in the afternoon with bags of bagels and huge boxes of donuts. At 10 p.m., the popcorn brigade arrives from one of the several popcorn shops on nearby State Street, getting in under the wire before people start bedding down and the building is closed at 11.

On Monday, February 21, there were two major demonstrations scheduled at the Capitol, at noon and 5 p.m. The noon demo was kicked off with music from Tom Morello, former guitarist of Rage Against the Machine. Morello announced that he had been a member of the musicians union for the past 22 years, was a card-carrying member of Industrial Workers of the World, and that his mother was a union teacher in Illinois. While the union bureaucrats repeatedly had the crowds sing God Bless America and the Star Spangled Banner, Morello and the band led the demonstrators in singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” with a rousing ending with 30,000 people jumping up and down (which helped since, as Morello put it, it was “wicked cold” out there). He ended with Pete Seeger’s closing line from “Talking Union Blues,” “take it easy, but take it.” The band also played at a “Rock for Your Rights” concert in the evening.

Orders to deliver pizza to pro-union demonstrators have been received from as far away as Egypt, Morocco, Poland, Finland, New Zealand, Denmark, Australia, Canada, Germany, Costa Rica, China, England, Netherlands, Turkey, Switzerland, Italy and Mexico.
(Internationalist photo)

Morello said he came to Wisconsin because “you’re making history here.” This is a theme that is on everyone’s lips. A father responded on a radio talk show to right-wing criticism of parents bringing their children to the demos – and even sleeping over in the Capitol. His response was that what was going on was history, and he wanted his child not only to witness it but to be part of making that history. Later in the afternoon we spoke with a family from Sun Prairie outside Madison who said that “30 years from now, everyone will still be talking about what we’re doing today.” Pizza and history: as the noon rally was ending a crew arrived with 30 boxes of free pizzas from Ian’s, which declared that they had so many donations from around the world that they were giving out free slices and free everything on Monday and on into Tuesday.

The 5 p.m. rally was once again an AFSCME operation, with lots of green printed placards saying the issue is freedom. Wisconsin is where the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was founded in 1932 as a state workers union. It was also the state which first achieved collective bargaining for public employees, in 1959. Even as bureaucrats lined up to give boring speeches, thousands of protesters started drifting over to what became an extremely militant and noisy rally outside a wing of the Capitol where Governor Walker was giving a press conference. Reports on the inside said that the roar of the crowd loudly chanting “Kill the Bill” could be heard throughout the conference. This kept up for a good two hours.

Local rulers are beginning the get nervous about what will happen if the bill ending collective bargaining for public employees is passed. While the Republicans figure this will put an end to labor militancy, the Wisconsin State Journal ran a front-page story Monday headlined “Back to the future?” worrying that “a Wisconsin without collective bargaining is a possible return to labor strife, to strikes and picket lines and angry, divided communities.” The article recounted the bitter two-week 1976 Madison teachers strike and the “ugly” 1974 walkout in Hortonville, near Appleton, where 84 teachers were fired for going on strike.

We have said repeatedly during the last several days that while it’s clear that the union supporters had the numbers and the union-busting bill does not have popular backing, this would not stop this governor hell-bent on destroying the unions. The Internationalist Group leaflet stated that “There should be an immediate statewide public workers strike to sink the anti-labor bill, and it needs to rapidly spread to all sectors of labor to shut Wisconsin down.” We added: “It will take nothing less than a statewide general strike to defeat labor hater Walker.” Now others are taking this up. During the day on Sunday signs and leaflets began appearing at the Capitol calling for a general strike in Madison, a one-day strike of all Wisconsin public workers and other variants. And on Monday evening we began hearing reports that local union officials were talking about a general strike, which is something that hasn’t happened in the U.S. in decades.

This turned out to come from a Monday-night meeting of the 97-union, 45,000-member South Central Federation of Labor, which includes Madison, where a motion was voted to endorse work stoppages in protest against the proposed law and to lay the groundwork for a general strike. They are already talking about what “essential services” might be exempted, and vowed to act even if other unions didn’t budge. A coordinating committee was set up to “contact European unions with experience conducting general strikes.” What the European unions call a general strike is really just a big labor demonstration in which the most militant sector take off work for a day to join in a march. A real general strike is a contest between labor and capital over which class shall rule. And as such they require a revolutionary leadership prepared to wage the class struggle through to victory.

On a local basis that is what occurred in three general strikes in 1934, touched off by dock workers in San Francisco, auto parts workers in Toledo, Ohio, and truck drivers in Minneapolis. All three were led by “reds,” the Minneapolis strike by Trotskyist militants of the Communist League of America. (Eighteen of the Minneapolis Teamsters and Trotskyist leaders were later jailed in WWII for their revolutionary opposition to the imperialist war.) These strikes broke the string of labor defeats in the early years of the Depression and set the stage for the birth of the CIO industrial unions a couple of years later. In the European context, one-day “general strikes” are often a way of diverting labor militancy from an all-out struggle. In the U.S., where the last general strike we can recall was in Oakland, California in 1946, even a one-day statewide strike could be a step in the right direction.

However, it seems that the Madison union tops are talking about a strike after Walker’s bill is passed. That would only be a parting gesture rather than a serious escalation of the struggle. Evidently the labor leaders are worried about angering “public opinion.” But working people in Wisconsin want the unions to act and not back down. The time to undertake such action is now, before the union-busting bill is passed, in order to block this anti-labor law and bust the union-busters with a show of labor’s power to bring the economy to a grinding halt. And such strike action means breaking with the phony “friend of labor” Democrats, ousting the pro-capitalist bureaucrats and building a class-struggle workers party (not some pale pink British-style “labor party”) fighting for the principle that those who labor must rule.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com