Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Occupy Chicago Protest and Civil Disobedience on October 22, 2011

I am a faculty member with the Labor Education Program that is part of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Working out of our Chicago office, I teach workers about workers’ rights, organizing, and labor history in noncredit classes at our classroom or at their union halls, and I teach undergraduates in the Global Labor Studies program which enrolls 1,000 UIUC students every semester.

I want to share with our students, and anyone else who is interested, my experience with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest on Saturday night, October 22, 2011 in Chicago.

The Occupy Chicago movement began about a month ago, on the heels of the inspiring New York City Occupy Wall Street that has sparked a national and international movement. There are daily protests at the Board of Trade on LaSalle and Jackson in downtown Chicago – our financial center equivalent to NYC’s Wall Street. Occupy Chicago says on its website:

“We are Chicagoans, and most importantly, Americans, gathered together in solidarity to exercise our Constitution-guaranteed rights of free speech and to peacefully assemble. Occupy Chicago is here to fight corporate abuse of American democracy in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world. Occupy Chicago reassures its members and the public that we are a social movement dedicated to nonviolent action.”

Organized labor didn't start this movement, and the vast majority of the people at the rallies are nonunion young people under 30 years old (or even under 25). But labor is now starting to provide some resources and turnout at big OWS rallies and marches.

Here is the Occupy Chicago website:

And the Occupy Together website giving national coverage:

But unlike New York, where the encampment at Zuccotti Park has provided a base for the movement to build community and grow, Occupy Chicago does not have a park. It has been based on sidewalks.

On Saturday, October 15, 3,000 people marched to Congress and Michigan to a small park. The protesters call it the “horse” in reference to a huge horse statue there. The police ordered them out, declared them in violation of a city ordinance that closes city parks at 11 pm, and arrested 175 peaceful protesters.

On Saturday, October 22 Occupy Chicago tried again. 2,500 to 3,000 people again marched from Jackson and LaSalle to the park at Michigan and Congress.

Here are photos:

The crowd was overwhelmingly young people, and overwhelmingly nonunion. These are not, for the most part, people who have been very active in social movements. For many of them, this is the first social movement they’ve ever been active in. For the vast majority of the more than 300 people arrested in the last week, this was their first nonviolent civil disobedience arrest.

The crowd assembled from 6:30 to 7:00 pm, then marched on Jackson east toward the lake. The crowd filled Jackson, and took up two city blocks. It was dense – you had to be careful when walking not to step on the heels of the person in front of you, and most of the way it was more of a shuffle than a walk. We chanted at the top of our lungs.

Some pundits and much of the mainstream media have attacked the OWS movement for not having specific legislative demands. I vehemently disagree. I think that:

1), This is often just an excuse to attack the movement by people who completely oppose the movement, and who are searching for any excuse to denounce it.

2), A strength of the OWS movement is that it offers a vision of a better America, a dream of an economy run in the interests of the people and not corporations. If it succeeds, some legislative reforms will be passed – undoubtedly modest, but a beginning. If it succeeds, it will spark and inspire much more organizing nationwide, that will eventually lead to much bigger legislative gains. But there’s nothing wrong with a movement having a vision for America rather than a focus on one or two pieces of legislation.

3), I think the broad program of the OWS is very clear in its chanted slogans and placards.
“We are the 99%” expresses a drive to mobilize the average person against the very rich who crashed our economy, yet are profiting while tens of millions suffer; the 1% who are living lives of luxury.

“Tax, tax, tax the rich” expresses anger that the taxes of the wealthy and corporations are continually reduced while so many are suffering; that there has been a huge shift in income from the masses of people to the wealthy over the past thirty years; and that income inequality is worse than any other industrialized nation and is back to where it was in 1929.

“Tax the rich, feed the poor” expresses a desire to see the government put the interests of the poor, the unemployed, and working people ahead of the interests of the rich and multinational corporations.

“The banks got bailed out, we got sold out” expresses the same anger – that the government has tens of billions to bail out banks and the wealthy, yet 9 million homes have been foreclosed in the last three years; the corporations are sitting on $2 trillion and profits are at record levels, yet there are 25 million who can’t find jobs; that tens of millions are suffering – and yet the government is doing very little to help.

And the chant that electrifies the crowd captures who the protesters are and their determination to not give up:
“One, we are the people.
“Two, we are united.
“Three, the occupation is not leaving.”
(The chant can’t be understood by just reading the words; you have to hear the drums beating as the words are shouted out.)

At the Congress/Michigan park, the protesters gathered. Some union and community group leaders spoke briefly. Nurses in the National Nurses United union set up a medical tent in the middle of the park. People talked. I chatted for awhile with two protesters, Keith an unemployed teacher and Lee an unemployed sales rep, both over 50 years old, both angry, both new to the movement, both of whom were going to risk arrest in civil disobedience for the first times in their lives.

The police again – under orders of Mayor Emmanuel who wants to crush this movement by stopping it from having a larger public space where an encampment could be organized – began arrests, around 1:30 a.m.

134 of us, with many hundreds on the sidewalks chanting their support, sat down in the middle of the park, and were one-by-one arrested by the police, with plastic handcuffs put on our hands tied behind our backs, and then walked to police wagons.

At the 18th and State police station we were separated by gender. In my large holding cell maybe 40 men were crammed in for about 2 ½ hours. We had a great discussion about the movement’s strategy; whether we should try to win establishment of an encampment at another location instead of the “horse” park; what types of protest actions and targets should come next; and about whether the OWS program was fine as is or needed to get into more specific demands.

I’ve been protesting injustice for over three decades, and this was one of the most enjoyable and productive discussions I’ve ever had.

When you’re arrested and held together, you really start to build deeper bonds with your cellmates.

One-by-one we were taken out of the cell for finger printing and to have our mug shots photographed. We all assumed that when people were taken out for this processing, that then they were released.

That is what happened the week before on October 15 when 175 protesters were arrested – they were released after four to six hours. I’ve been arrested several times before for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience protesting injustice, often as part of a large group, and I’ve usually been released in an hour or two.

But not this time. This time Mayor Emmanuel gave orders to punish the protesters for daring to engage in civil disobedience (refusing to leave a park) for two Saturdays in a row.

This time Mayor Emmanuel (former chief of staff to President Obama, former Democratic congressman) ordered the protesters to be punished. Instead of being held until our paperwork was processed, we were to be incarcerated for a day in an effort to intimidate others from continuing the protests, and in an effort to break the spirits of the protesters.

Anyone who thinks Mayor Emmanuel is a good guy; someone who cares about the people; or someone who sympathizes with the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement – I’ve got 134 people who would very much like to tell you why you’re dead wrong.

We were put in cells – there are 112 at that police station – that were roughly 8 feet by 12 feet, with white cinderblock walls. The cell’s metal door had a small window, out of which you could only see through the window into the cell across from you. Bright fluorescent lights were always on, so sleep was out of the question. A metal toilet was in the corner – with no toilet paper. There were no beds with mattresses, just hard concrete benches along two walls.

I was alone for two hours, then was lucky enough to get a cell mate, Dan Rosiak. We kept each other sane, talking, sharing life stories, supporting one another… and although the police confiscate all belongings when you’re arrested (including your belt and shoelaces), he had kept a few coins in his pocket, so we enjoyed a game throwing the coins against a wall, the winner getting it closest to the wall. I owe a lot to Dan. He kept me going. He kept my spirits high.

The whole set-up tends after a while to start freaking you out. The isolation. The feeling that the walls are closing in on you. The guard telling you that they can incarcerate you up to 48 hours in that cell with no outside contact. And many people were alone in their cells for many, many hours.

And Dan and I were lucky, as I was probably the only one of the 134 whose watch wasn’t confiscated. So we knew the time, and shouted it to the few comrades near us who could hear us through the metal door. To be in a small concrete cell for long hours without knowing the time adds to the mental confusion that the police intend to inflict on prisoners.

The guards disappeared completely for four hours in the morning. Around 1 pm a guard showed, and very slowly – like a few people every hour – they let people out. But the Chicago Police Department guard was happily sadistic. He’d sing-song about “a lottery, and whose turn is it now to get out?” He mocked us. He bizarrely told us that “if we’d paid our taxes, we wouldn’t be here.”

For nearly all of us, no phone calls were allowed until we’d been incarcerated for 15 hours.

I stupidly thought that they’d let us out by 10 am, as otherwise they’d have to feed us breakfast since we’d been in police custody since 2 am. I stupidly thought the same thing about getting out by 1 pm, or they’d have to feed us lunch.

At 3 pm we got two pieces of white bread with a piece of baloney – our “meal” for the day.

Dan got out at 7:10 pm, and I got out at 8:30 pm – about 19 hours after I was arrested.

SEIU Health Care Indiana/Illinois organized dozens of supporters to loudly greet us as we were released, and with fresh pizza to eat. Micah Uetrich, an organizer from Arise Chicago who wrote the piece I linked below, was a lead person organizing the support. And boy, was the crowd a welcome sight! My wife C.J. (Rev. C.J. Hawking who leads the interfaith workers’ rights group Arise Chicago), and my 14-year-old daughter Wyatt surprised me by greeting me. They’d been waiting 2 ½ hours for me to get out. Wyatt was interviewed by NBC News and, I’m told, professed how proud she was of her dad. (Eyes tear up time.)

Of course, we all knew that we’d get out at some point. We all know that mostly African-American and Hispanic working class people get far worse treatment at the hands of the police. There’s no comparison. This was just a small taste of what too many people must endure.

Another protester wrote up his experience about October 22:

And Micah, who is a Global Labor Studies program grader and an Arise Chicago organizer, wrote about his experiences at the October 15 protest Occupy Chicago protest, where 175 were arrested:

The movement will go on. It will grow. Intimidation tactics only make people more determined to fight. “The occupation *is* *not* *leaving*.”

Steven Ashby

Saturday, March 19, 2011


I’ve been participating in social justice protests for several decades, but I’ve never experienced anything like the spirit of the Wisconsin workers’ upsurge.

The Wisconsin Spirit isn’t just the protest movement. The Wisconsin Spirit is an attitude, a set of values, a feeling of community.

First, ninety-eight percent of the placards and signs have been handmade. This is extraordinary. Usually in social justice and union protests a small percentage of signs are handmade, but most placards are professionally printed by the organizing groups.

At the Saturday, March 12 protest of 150,000 people, there were some mass produced signs made by unions. State employees who are members of AFSCME, for example, carried wonderful signs reading “This is about freedom.”

But tens of thousands of Wisconsinites took the time – some clearly took hours – to personalize a message to Governor Walker and the world by making their own signs. Some signs were emotional, some were humorous, some were angry, some told a personal story. All of them were creative and poignant.

The personalized signs made it clear to the world that this wasn’t a sustained series of protests by organizations. No, this was a peoples’ movement. This was a mass movement of ordinary people.

Second, I’ve never been at a social justice protest where people chant “thank you” to speakers and supporters. This has been a regular chant in the Wisconsin protests. After someone would speak in the rotunda to the 1,000+ who occupied the capitol building for two weeks, the chant would rise up. When a group of unionists marched together through the rotunda, the chant would go up. Whenever union fire fighters or union police officers marched together, the chant started. At all the mass rallies on the capitol steps, tens of thousands chanted “thank you!” to each speaker.

It’s a shame that every teacher in America – the vilified, denigrated teachers who have suffered such insults from conservative politicians and media pundits – couldn’t have experienced being in the capitol building when over a thousand people chanted at the top of their lungs, “Thank you teachers!”

The “thank you” chant helped create and deepen the sense of community, of camaraderie, of solidarity that permeated the entire workers’ upsurge. Particularly during the capitol occupation, when you participated in the chants and drumming and listened to people testify; when you walked around and looked at the hundreds, then thousands, of signs on the walls; when you started up conversations with strangers; when you walked around and saw the level of organization in what became a peoples’ cathedral; when you just gazed at hundreds of protesters and saw the intense determination in their eyes and the smiles on their faces – it built a sense of community. It was magical.

For so very many of us, when we left the occupied capitol building, it was like a magnet, drawing us back. The number of people participating, and the sustained daily protests, were inspiring. But the occupation of the capitol, and the contagious spirit of the Wisconsin people, was more than that – it was extraordinary. It was electrifying.

It was a transcendent communal experience.

And it was that mindset that Governor Walker was trying to kill when he illegally locked the people out of the capitol building on February 28th.

Finally, part of the driving force of the anger in Wisconsin was a sense of betrayal of basic values. It seems to me from talking to many Wisconsinites that they have a deep sense of pride that Wisconsin is a state where people care about one another; where people take care of one another. There’s an immense pride in their health care system, BadgerCare. There’s an immense pride that the Green Bay Packers, alone among National Football League teams, are owned, since 1923, by the people. The Packers’ website reports that 4.7 million shares are owned by 112,000 people. The team is run as a nonprofit corporation. No single stock owner can own more than 200,000 shares, which ensures that no individual has undue influence over the voting process.

And I was told by many proud Wisconsites that volunteers work concessions at Packers’ games, with sixty percent of the proceeds going to local charities. This, too, many people told me, expressed the Wisconsin spirit.

In the 24/7 hearings held by Democrats during the two-week capitol occupation, many hundreds of ordinary people testified against the bill, telling their personal stories. Repeatedly people would say that they moved to Wisconsin or else decided to stay in Wisconsin because of the people – that the core Wisconsin value is that people care for one another. And that Governor Walker and his union-busting bill with its deep cuts in social services were viciously violating that spirit, that core value.

So it’s not just that we need to help expand the protests inspired by the Wisconsin upsurge.

We also need to spread these core values, this transcendent community, this Wisconsin spirit.


I've been to Madison four times over the past month. And I've been reading websites and newspapers online for over a month now, devouring news about the Wisconsin workers' upsurge.

I think this teacher's message gets at the core values of the movement, and I wanted to share it. She is saying what so many teachers are saying -- that she loves teaching. That she became a teacher because she loves teaching. She became a teacher because she wants to imbue her students with a lifelong passion for learning and to make a difference in children’s lives.

This is what she lives for: "These moments when children transform because of something they learned in school. An experience they had because of a loving teacher and a dedicated staff."

And she writes that, after the union-busting bill was passed that stripped teachers and other public sector workers of their rights, "when you see teachers weeping today, you should know they are not crying only for themselves. They are crying because public education in this state is being dismantled. It started with the unions. And it will end with hurting our children."

I think we need to find a way to get more of the teachers' personal stories out there to the public. A teacher telling her story - like this Wisconsin teacher - is very, very powerful.

This is becoming, must become, the new face of the American labor movement.

READ her story at: http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=32719


The daily demonstrations in Wisconsin have, it seems, come to an end. The mobilizations began on Monday, February 14, following the February 8th announcement by Governor Scott Walker of his anti-labor bill, and continued for four weeks to a mass mobilization of 100,000 people (the Wisconsin State Journal’s estimate) to 150,000 people (many participants’ estimate) on Saturday, March 12.

Now the focus in Wisconsin has turned toward getting petitions signed in eight districts to recall Republican senators who voted for the anti-union measure. Once a petition drive begins, the organizers have 60 days to get sufficient signatures; then up to 30 days for the Secretary of State to declare them valid; then an election is set. Wisconsin requires petitioners to gather enough signatures to equal 25% of the votes cast in the most recent race for governor in the district of the targeted legislator. Wisconsin law also dictates that a year must pass after the election of the targeted official before he or she can be recalled. So Republicans that were elected in November 2010, including Governor Walker, can not be recalled for one year.

To get a sense of the immensity of the March 12 protest, view this 360 degree photography.

Click on the play arrow, such as next to "View in HD." The first photo comes up of the protests inside the capitol building during the occupation, February 15-28. The image moves in a circle. At the bottom you'll see icons for 10 photos. The three on the right are from Saturday, March 12 march and rally. The last one on the right really shows the mammoth size of the crowd.

I talked to teachers who had come in three busses to make the 7 hour drive from Michigan to join the protest. I talked with people who had come from all across the state to participate, many driving long hours. Three retired teachers drove the 2 1/2 hours together from Green Bay. Everyone I talked to felt a combination of anger and exhilaration. Anger that the Republicans had pushed through the union-busting bill. But exhilaration at the movement they had created. Kind of in awe and at the same time deeply proud that the whole country was watching what they'd done.

I talked to a Madison teacher who told me she'd taken her union for granted before this year. She supported it, she valued it, but she didn't feel really part of it -- she didn't feel it was necessary she be more than a supporter. All that has changed. She has changed. And her story can be repeated hundreds of thousands of times over.

This is a great time to be a labor educator or labor activist. The Wisconsin workers’ upsurge has received more mass media coverage, and more favorable coverage, than any workers’ protest that I can recall.

Faculty in our Chicago Labor Education Program (and labor educators across the nation) have been repeatedly called for our insights. I was on Chicago’s WBEZ (National Public Radio) on March 2, and here’s the link to that 10 minute interview:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Unionists from the Steelworkers and Fire Fighters spent the night in the occupied capitol building last night. An activist walked the building and counted 600 people spending the night. Amazing!

Unions are taking shifts sleeping in the capitol building, along with grad students from the TAA union and many other supporters. Tonight (Tuesday) the Steelworkers will again spend the night; tomorrow is AFSCME’s turn; and so on.


The capitol building had a different atmosphere today as the Governor brought in 600 police from many other cities. I’d say that instead of seeing police every 100 feet, in groups of two, now you see police every 20 feet and in groups of six. The Republicans claimed in the State Journal that they brought in other police to give the Madison police a break from long shifts, but the reality is they wanted to intimidate the protesters with a heavy presence.

The spirit of the activists, though, hasn’t changed. The movement hasn’t retreated in the slightest. As every day brings new busloads of unionists and supporters, the activists are re-energized.

Over the past week the Madison police as individuals have been often been friendly and supportive.


Last night 5,000 people, half of them U of W students, enthusiastically applauded several musicians in a quickly organized rock concert, led by Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. I attended with my two teenage daughters, Wyatt and Eva.

Every time a speaker or a singer said/sang “union,” thousands of fists rose in the air. The concert was kicked off by a speech from Mahlon Mitchell, the local union president of the fire fighters’ union and an African-American union leader. He defied the Governor to arrest fire fighters spending the night in the occupied state capitol building. Despite being exempted by the Governor from the union-busting legislation, the local fire fighters have repeatedly turned out in force in solidarity with the protesters. See: http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/govt-and-politics/blog/article_d8a5fda8-3ece-11e0-9501-001cc4c002e0.html


The Madison teachers union, which has played an outstanding leadership role in the struggle, voted on Sunday night to return to work, and they did so today. Their members had called in sick since Wednesday, forcing the shut down of area schools. The teachers felt that they couldn’t create hardship for parents and students and so returned to work.

Parents were seen marching around the capitol building carrying signs signifying that they were marching in place of their children’s teacher who had to return to work.

There’s no doubt, though, that if the teachers feel it necessary, they will walk out again.


Meanwhile, the South Central Wisconsin Federation of Labor, led by a great labor leader, Jim Cavanaugh (who I’ve known since his group did remarkable work in solidarity with the locked out Staley workers in the early 1990s), voted to call a general strike if the union busting legislation passed. See: http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/article_64c8d7a8-3e8c-11e0-9911-001cc4c002e0.html


And, as I previously noted here and as is getting wide publicity, Ian’s Pizza continues to be flooded with calls donating money for the protesters. Now pizzas are not only being regularly delivered to the occupied Capitol building, but activists can come into the pizzeria and get a free meal thanks to donations from scores of countries. CJ was there today and heard a call reported from the Czech Republic. Even Conan made a joke about it tonight in his monologue. They closed the phone lines for donations tonight, so they could take a break and just cook and serve pizza and not answer endlessly ringing phones. Ian’s: http://www.ianspizza.com/


This morning at 10:30 am the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of Southern Wisconsin Interfaith held a rally, attended by over 60 clergy and supporters, in front of the Grace Episcopal Church. See their website at: http://www.workerjustice.org/ Grace Church, with its beautiful towering spire, is right on the square opposite the capitol building in Madison.

The event kept getting interrupted as workers from nearby cities joined the Madison protests. Numbers are hard to gauge, but it looked like 1,000 building trades workers from Minneapolis – it seemed every trade was represented – chanting at the top of their lungs. Then came 1,500 AFSCME workers, mostly corrections officers, marching by and chanting. The clergy stopped their rally to come to the street and cheer on the workers. They had to stop a second time as the marchers circled the capitol building.

Then the clergy finished their rally and processed to the rotunda in the capitol building, where the crowd parted and they entered the center area. They blessed the protesters as following God’s will and blessed the occupied rotunda as a sacred space. A young woman on a bullhorn then led over 1,000 people in a chant – a new variant on the standard but oh-so-beautiful “TELL me what democracy looks like” and the shouted response “THIS is what democracy looks like!”

Only this time the organizer shouted “TELL me what religion should look like.” And the crowd chanted back “THIS is what religion should look like!” It was electric.

Governor Walker, the Republican Party leaders in Wisconsin and nationally, and their mouthpieces on rightwing talk radio and Fox television, are trying to spin their union busting as a rational response to greedy public sector workers. They seek to isolate and ostracize the government workers.

A vital part of the multi-faceted response has to be to ensure that community voices – like clergy – play a central role in the fight back. It’s harder to isolate labor, or to isolate public sector unions, when the Republicans find themselves also having to attack clergy, high school students, African-American civil rights activists, Latino community activists, immigrant rights leaders, small business people, and other supporters and partners in the struggle.

Kim Bobo was in town today, the national director of Interfaith Worker Justice, and Rev. CJ Hawking (head of Arise Chicago) and assistants have moved to Madison to assist in outreach to clergy.


There are literally hundreds of signs surrounding the rotunda in the worker and student occupied state capitol building in Madison. More are added every day.

There are some signs that are mass produced, such as the United Steel Workers’ “One day longer” or the very powerful AFSCME sign “It’s about freedom!”

And another mass produced sign that cuts straight to the issue is:
“Care about educators like they care for your child”

Finally, there are several signs posted around the rotunda, sometimes with different words, saying:
“Five states prohibit collective bargaining for teachers. Their rankings in combined ACT/SAT scores are as follows: Virginia 44th, Texas 47th, Georgia 48th, North Carolina 49th, South Carolina 50th. Wisconsin is currently tied for 2nd.

And on the edge of the rotunda there is a large sign:
“Peoples Popular Assembly”

BUT… nearly all of the hundreds of other signs in the Madison capitol building surrounding the rotunda are hand made with a personal message for the world.

Here is a partial list. My two daughters and I walked around the rotunda and scribbled them down. We didn’t write down the many that simply identified a union in solidarity, but only the ones with a personal message.

This is what democracy looks like!

I’m not afraid to take a stand. Everybody come take my hand!

Small business owner for worker rights

We shall not be moved!

Keep the faith, Wisconsin!

Rights are not something we “sacrifice”

Non union worker for union rights!

Scott Walker is the Koch brothers’ minion

Private sector worker for our unions

Home is wherever I’m with you

No hate!

Shabazz High School class in session!

Forward not backward

I skipped school today so I can learn about tomorrow

This is what class consciousness looks like

You’re the evil dude my Mom warned me about

We already gave back $100,000,000

If your children attend a public school and you are not outraged, then you are not paying attention!

Think big, act boldly, spirit has no bounds

Be loud, be proud, be peaceful. The success of this protest lives and dies by the peacefulness of its supporters!

This is our house

I’m retired Army and I served to protect workers’ rights

Cops for labor

Nurses rights = patient rights

This is my teachable moment

People have died for labor rights! How dare we give them up?

Wisconsin, thank you for standing up for my family

Watch us defend our country

National Association of Letter Carriers: Neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom of night will make our union give up this fight!

Pro-union veteran

The movement loves you!

This isn’t about the $. It’s about our rights!

Sierra Club supports public workers

This is not a budget bill. It is a union busting bill

Governor Walker: The whole world is watching

Never been so proud to be a Wisconsinite

How many more in one class??

Why can’t we be friends with benefits?

Ever notice that a 30% tax increase for the wealthiest Americans is “socialism’ but a 14% pay cut on the lower middle class is doing your part?

Dear media, we’re not greedy. You are!

Collective bargaining gave WOMEN educators
- equal pay to men
- maternity leave
- sexual harassment protections
- grievance procedures
- etc.

Scott Walker proving maybe it does take a degree

Sisters, brothers – be brave, be kind, stay strong. Together we are standing for the rights of us all

Let’s build a U.S. for all of us! No room for racism!

Union rights are equal rights

Stay until the whole bill is killed

Screw us and we multiply

Has a teacher helped you?

Free math tutoring. Republicans encouraged to attend.

I love my teacher

Recall Walker

Nobody wins when teachers lose

Miss a few days of school? Or jeopardize education for the future? It’s a no brainer

I’m not in a union, but I support unions

Today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Stay Involved

Finally, if you’ve read this far, here is perhaps my favorite sign as it captures the spirit of the Wisconsin workers’ rebellion. This is a handwritten note on a letter size paper that is taped to a wall near the rotunda:

Welcome to the capitol!
We come together for a common cause and a community has formed where people share resources and responsibilities with no sense of reward. Valuables have been left and remained safe while surrounded by thousands. Food is shared and people line up to help distribute it. Feelings of love and solidarity are in the air. Proof is all around of another world possible. Welcome (drawing of a valentine heart)

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: http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/health_med_fit/article_7d742504-3df2-11e0-9f0c-001cc4c03286.html

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: http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/article_dc1d1c6c-3d59-11e0-b6a2-001cc4c002e0.html

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.

Stories from Madison: Vikki the Teacher

The Daily web newspaper site is a great source of information about the protests.

As the protests began on Monday, February 14, they ran an article by a teacher that is well worth reading, “I am not the enemy: A Wisconsin teacher considers Walker's budget,” by Vikki Kratz.

She is a second year elementary school teacher who loves her job. She talks about the budget cuts and how they hurt her children, who are mostly poor in her rural Wisconsin district.

Governor Walker’s demands for teachers like her to take further wage cuts and increase out of pocket health costs – an average Wisconsin public sector worker will lose $3,200, a university study found – will not help go to help her school. They will not restore jobs or prevent layoffs. They will not stop the rising class size, or buy inadequate supplies.

She talks candidly (and reluctantly) about her personal finances. She makes $36,000 a year. She has a bachelor’s degree, and has studied for a master’s degree and is one course short. Walker wants to cut her pay by $400 a month.

She admits she has no idea how she will survive on that pay cut. She was barely getting by as it is – car payments, mortgage, crushing student loan debt, food, gasoline, taxes.

I think we need more stories like Vikki’s. We need to work harder to personalize what is happening to America’s working class. We need to tell more stories. We need everyone to step up and tell their stories – just as hundreds of people have been doing in the hearing room on the fourth floor of the State Capitol, testifying to legislators about the impact of the dreaded union busting bill on their lives, on their families, on their neighbors.

The Republican story line is cut, cut, cut; attack and blame public workers and unions.

Our story is about real human beings, who have already sacrificed and are barely getting by, being told to give more and more.

Although, if you’re a frequent reader of the “comment” area under articles, which takes patience and stress control, then you may want to look at the comments under Vikki’s poignant story.

Many are supportive and add new information.

Many others are along the lines of “I’m also a worker, I took huge wage cuts, I pay huge amounts for my health care… so you should stop crying and suffer even more, like I have had to.”

Worker attacking worker. You might call it anti-solidarity, the opposite of solidarity. “I don’t care about you. I don’t care about anyone else but me. I’ve suffered, so I want everyone else to suffer, too.”

How do we reach those workers? They’re angry, too. They’ve many good reasons to be angry, too. But they don’t turn their anger against the tax cuts for the rich. They don’t turn their anger against a booming Wall Street, giving out tens of billions in bonuses. They turn their anger against other workers.

How do we reach them?

Free Pizza for Madison Protesters, TAA union, and Video Coverage of Madison

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the TAA organizing center (graduate student union) on the 4th floor of the State Capitol building. Here is a photo and story from The Daily campus paper online:

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the free pizza, and how donations were coming from all over the country to feed the Madison protesters. Solidarity comes in many forms! Here’s an excerpt on that story from the website of Ian’s Pizza, a couple blocks off the square:

“The next day [Wednesday] we got a handful of calls from folks throughout the country, people who had heard about our late-night donation. Then a few more the next day, and next thing, fast forward to 5pm on Saturday when we were so inundated with calls - - from over half the states in the Union and from international locales ranging from Canada to Denmark -- that our normal business had to essentially be shut down so we could focus on feeding the protestors.”

There’s lots of great video footage of the week’s protests on YouTube. But also, here is a great collection (in several parts) shot by Matt Wisniewski:

Sunday, February 20, 2011


On Sunday morning I came, with my wife CJ and two girls, to participate in and learn from the Madison workers’ rights protest movement.

The Wisconsin state capitol building is gorgeous. Built in 1917, it has the sense of history about it. The rotunda is beautiful inside, very old, awesome to look at. Murals. Statues. Long marble stairs.

But even more beautiful is the most amazing sight of many hundreds of people cheering, chanting, and listening to testimony as they occupy the building.

There are signs and placards on the walls everywhere; hand made placards supporting public workers, supporting teachers, supporting unions, denouncing Governor Walker, and so on.

It is breathtaking to see and experience. After so much union bashing in the media, so much hostility and hatred, so many lies… it is stunning to see a state capitol building occupied by protesting workers and students, with union signs everywhere.

They are young and old, union and nonunion. And everyone is smiling. Everyone feels the energy. Everyone feels their own power. There is an exuberance here.

Despair has been transformed into hope. Anger into action. Sadness into joy. Isolated individuals into the solidarity of a mass movement.

In the rotunda people step forward to speak briefly. Drummers beat out a beat. The people chant over and over again, “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Kill the bill!”

I talked for a while to a couple of University of Wisconsin graduate students at the information table on the second floor of the rotunda. Hundreds of people here are volunteering – doing clean up, acting as monitors, talking to the media, blogging, phone calling legislators, and so on.

On Monday February 14 there was a rally of graduate students. On Tuesday and Wednesday two bigger rallies were planned. It has grown every day since then. On Saturday 70,000 people came. Seventy thousand and not a single arrest, one person told me proudly. A thousand tea party rightwingers came, and screamed and shouted, trying to provoke the pro-worker protesters. But no one took the bait. Hundreds of people, I was told, wore "this is a peaceful rally" signs on their backs. "We are a peaceful movement," a protester told me, and won't be provoked.

Tomorrow (Monday) another huge noon rally is planned, then a 5:00 pm concert. No one seems to know for sure who is coming, but members of Rage Against the Machine may be among them. There is a rumor that the Daily Show will be in town.

This is a spontaneous, day by day movement, a young protester told me. We're making it up as we go along, he said.

There doesn’t appear to be a plan beyond what will happen the next day. Only by Friday, I was told, after five days of rallies, did there start to be planning on what might happen two or three days later.

I asked the grad students when they realized the protests were not just for a day or two, but had momentum and would happen every day. They said that they and others began to occupy the state capitol building on Tuesday night, and they began to realize that the movement was not like any other; that it was going to be a long struggle with daily rallies and a long occupation of the State Capitol.

On Thursday the 14 Democratic Senators left the state for Illinois, so they could not be rounded up by the state police and forced to return to the Capitol. By their exit they thus prevented the 19 Republicans a 20th Senator required for a quorum, so the union busting bill could not be called to a vote.

I saw 10 extra large pizzas in boxes on the floor, and grabbed a slice. I asked who I could donate to for the slice. No need, I was told. People had already donated. There was a website where people could pledge money for slices for the protesters. People from all over were donating. “You’re kidding me,” I said to the guy in charge. “I’m not,” he replied. “It’s intense.”

It is that, absolutely that. The whole scene is intense.

I talked to a teacher who has come almost every day from Milwaukee. Either the teachers in 19 school districts call in sick, or else they report to work but school has been canceled as so many others have called in sick.

I walked into a “hearing room” on the 4th floor, to find it taken over since Tuesday by graduate students in the Teaching Assistants Association union. A dozen sat typing away on laptops. A big sign in the back read “Media.” I talked to a couple grad students about what it felt like to be in the midst of making history.

The legal protection that has so far kept the capitol building open 24 hours a day while the workers and students occupy it is that the Democratic assembly reps are holding a nonstop hearing, getting testimony from Wisconsin citizens on the bill. When I entered, the room was packed with 60 people. Two legislators listened as one after another person testified. People were only let in and out when a speaker had finished, so that the loud cheering from the rotunda wouldn’t drown out the speakers.

I’ve never been political, said one person. I’ve never protested anything. But this is so wrong. And so I’ve been here every day.

I’m a single mom teacher and I love my kids and I love my job, said another person. I’ve already lost my house to foreclosure. If this bill passes with the huge wage cut and skyrocketing health insurance costs, I won’t be able to afford health insurance. She sobbed as she pleaded with the legislators not to take away her family’s health care.

I’m not from here, said another. I’ve lived here 7 years. But I have no family here. I settled here because I love the people, I love the culture, I love how people care for one another here. Governor Walker is betraying the spirit of Wisconsin.

Another person echoed that sentiment, talking about the spirit of the Green Bay Packers – the only football team owned by the people. And how the concession stands are staffed by nonprofit groups, and those groups get the profits from that day’s sales to help their organizations do good works. And that, he said, is the spirit of Wisconsin – taking care of one another. And the Governor is betraying that.

Others, many of them not union members, talked about how the right to be in a union, the right to collectively bargain, is a fundamental democratic right. And a fundamental human right, said another, as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights proclaims.

Others talked about the devastating impact of cuts in social services that Governor Wagner is demanding, and how many, many people will suffer if he and the Republicans get their way.