Monday, February 21, 2011


The strategy to defeat the union-busting bill, from what I can learn from talking to many people, at this point is this…

1. Continue the mobilizations at the State Capitol and inside the building in the rotunda. It’s hard to gauge the numbers at today’s noon rally. There was a big crowd listening to speeches, and a larger crowd circling the capitol building. But the numbers dwindled as people got exhausted from the bitter cold and went into shelter. There might have been 5,000 or 10,000 protesters, including the 1,000 + inside the building.

A teacher spoke in the rotunda and asked everyone to become an organizer. The protests cannot continue with significant numbers unless new people come. The Madison teachers shut down most schools last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, but can’t continue to do so. They decided to return to work. The teacher said they would return every day after 4:00 pm, but the movement would only succeed if others replaced them during the day.

It’s been amazing to me, as a labor historian, that a judge did not issue an immediate injunction against the Madison teachers’ union declaring the mass sick-out an illegal strike – but the judge refused to do so. See:

A group of doctors in a bit of street theater issued notes to teachers who walked out. Of course, now their bosses are on their case. But the docs’ action shows the depth of popular support for this movement in Madison. See:

A U of Wisconsin TAA graduate student told me the same thing; they have to return to class. They’ll keep up the movement, but they really need others – include everyone within a half day’s drive – to make the trip to the Madison workers’ upsurge.

The feeling inside the rotunda is something you must experience to appreciate. The sound echoes through the building. It is almost deafening. A thousand people chanting, with hundreds of handmade signs with creative slogans surrounding them, led by at least 15 drummers. You have to chant “This is what democracy looks like” in that scene to know the exuberance of it.

My favorite chants today were, replacing “democracy” with America, “This is what America looks like!” And tied as my favorite is “Thank you teachers.” Every teacher in America should experience the feeling when 1,000+ people, let to the pounding of 15 drums, chants this at the top of their lungs.

Tonight a large group of Steelworkers and of Firefighters will spend the night in the rotunda. More and more unions and community groups need to do the same.

2. Mobilize pressure in at least six of the districts that elected Republican senators in the last election. 14 Democratic senators are in hiding in Illinois, preventing a quorum, and preventing the union-busting bill from being brought to the floor. There is a rule that any legislation involving finances must have a quorum of 20 votes.

There are 19 Republican senators. If public pressure can succeed in getting 3 of them to signal they’ll vote against the legislation – 17 of 34 votes are needed to kill the bill -- then it is dead.

That’s a tall order. But the unions are putting energy into mobilizing voters and community allies to pressure Republican senators to oppose the bill, in districts that had previously been represented by Democrats. The argument is that Governor Walker has thrown the state into turmoil and a crisis. Level minded heads must prevail. The public sector unions have reluctantly agreed to make significant wage and health care concessions. But if the Governor continues in his effort to essentially crush all public sector unions by ending collective bargaining, the crisis will escalate and escalate.

3. Be ready for anything. While the Republican senators cannot pass financial legislation, and so can’t pass the whole Walker bill, legally they could attempt to pass the union-busting aspects of the bill, as they don’t directly deal with funding. The Republicans return to the capitol building tomorrow. No one knows what they will attempt to do.

While the Democrats continue to hold hearings, legally the building must remain open. But the mass occupation has to be driving the Governor and the Republican legislators absolutely mad.

The entire workers’ movement has remained totally peaceful. But there’s no guarantee that at some point the Governor won’t order the state police, or the National Guard, to evict the protesters from the rotunda.

Although violent repression has been a management tactic throughout American history, it would be a little more difficult in Madison. Half of the members of the state police union would lose collective bargaining rights under Governor Walker’s bill. While Walker tried a divide-and-rule tactic by exempting fire fighters and police from his union busting bill, he apparently forgot the state police union represented far more than state police. See:

Meanwhile, a huge morale booster at the rallies has been the large turnout of members of the fire fighters’ union. Though exempted from the bill, they have come out strongly and in force against the legislation. They march in fire fighters’ uniforms, led by bagpipes.

But if the Governor and the Republicans escalate the attack, the movement will have to respond in kind. Whatever that may mean. Mass nonviolent civil disobedience. On the job actions across the state. A one day walk-out. Whatever it takes.

Finally, I would emphasize two things I've written before.

First, this is an amazing movement of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The unions are involved, there is structure, there is a strategy - but this is a completely bottom-up movement led by the public sector workers in Wisconsin.

Second, everyone is smiling here. Everyone feels that they are making history. No one is scared. No one knows what is coming, but everyone is happy. The rotunda is like a magnet. When you leave that amazing energy, it calls you back again.

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