Notes from the Wisconsin Budget Rallies, Part II

Jane Collins

Since I last wrote, the Governor Scott Walker has closed Wisconsin’s capitol building at night, and to enter during the day you must wait in long lines and pass through a metal detector. The sign at the screening point is whimsical: “no animals/snakes, balloons, coolers, crockpots, easels, massage chairs, buckets, drumsticks, trash can lids, vuvuzelas….” The mood has darkened a bit since Wisconsin’s Republican legislators found a way to pass the most draconian aspects of the governor’s “Budget Repair Bill” without the presence of the 14 Democratic senators who left the state to deny them a quorum. Their ploy was to separate the measures restricting collective bargaining, gutting Medical Assistance, and giving away the state’s energy resources from the fiscal items that required a larger quorum and to pass them at night, in a hastily called session that may have violated state meetings’ laws. That night, protestors managed to peacefully breach the doors of the capitol and occupy it one more night.

Outside the capitol, protests continue daily, with bigger turn-outs on weekends— over 100,000 on this past Saturday, March 12th. The March 12th gathering included a convoy of 50 farm tractors organized by members of the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union who were there to protest their loss of access to Badger Care, the state’s low-income health insurance program. Also attending were the 14 Democratic senators, who, having been unable to keep the “Repair Bill” from passing, returned from south of the Illinois border to fight on the terrain of the monstrous budget itself. Inflatable plastic palm trees have been ubiquitous at these rallies ever since Fox tried to pawn off footage of scuffles between demonstrators and police in Sacramento as occurring in Madison (with palm trees in the background as a giveaway that the footage was NOT from Wisconsin). Saturday’s rally, like the others to date, featured citizens from all walks of life marching around the capitol square wearing union tee-shirts over their down coats. Most carried home-made signs that criticized Walker and his corporate backers the Koch Brothers, or defended teachers and other public employees, or extolled the Democratic senators (and sometimes beer and cheese). But the mood was colored by the fact that many of those marching would lose the vast majority of their collective bargaining rights within the next two weeks.

There will not be a general strike here, at least for the moment. Instead, people are pouring their labor into securing signatures for the recall of those Republican senators who supported the bill and are eligible for it. They are also pledges to sign a recall petition for the governor in November and are campaigning for the April election of a labor-friendly state Supreme Court justice who could mitigate the harm done by the governor and legislature. The Capitol in Madison is not the only focus of public displays of resistance these days—large and vocal protests are occurring in almost every electoral district in the state.

I have struggled to understand the incredible strength and interconnectedness of the community-based labor struggle we are witnessing here—Teamsters and turtles, yes, but also teachers, nurses, machinists, auto workers, the unemployed, the disabled, the elderly, home health aides, police officers, housewives, doctors, students, small business owners. I have read and written about community-based unionism for a long time, but I have never seen anything like this. In part, I know that people recognize that corporate owners outsourced the state’s manufacturing jobs long ago and these are the “last good jobs.” They know that if we lose these jobs—or erode their quality—there will be no decent opportunities in the labor market for anyone. The average wage and average benefits package will decline. But I think there is another reason as well. The governor’s vicious attack on these jobs has made people realize how much their livelihood strategies and quality of life depend on public sector services. Just as a few years ago, protesters asked us to imagine “a day without Mexicans.” The governor’s extreme proposals have led people to imagine life without public schools, parks, public transportation, garbage collection and recycling, police and fire protection and libraries. A colleague of mine who has been avidly interviewing protesters says that we are collectively expressing our desire to take care of one another and to have the state organize that process. When people chant “our house” over and over again at the Capitol—they are not only referring to the beautiful building that has become the focal point of the protests, but the institutions of governance that provide for that care. The line that is being drawn “in the snow” here in Wisconsin is between those who are wealthy enough to secede from the public system, and those who continue to rely on it. To quote Michael Lind of the New America Foundation:

If the American rich increasingly do not depend for their wealth on American workers and American consumers or for their safety on American soldiers or police officers, then it is hardly surprising that so many of them should be so hostile to paying taxes to support the infrastructure and the social programs that help the majority of the American people. The rich don’t need the rest of us anymore.

Jane Collins teaches Community & Environmental Sociology and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


Members of SUNTA are welcome to contribute essays to this blog site that are relevant to the themes of urban, national, and transnational global anthropology. In order to submit an essay for consideration, please see Guidelines for Blog Essay Submission.

All opinions expressed in the essays of this blog are those of their individual authors, and do not represent the official opinions or views of of the American Anthropological Association, The Society of Urban National and Transnational Global/Anthropology, or of the officers of these associations.

Notes from the Wisconsin Budget Rallies

Jane Collins

Sometime on Monday, February 14th I stepped into a parallel universe. It is a world where firefighters and students slumber side-by-side in Sponge Bob sleeping bags on the cold granite floor of the state capitol, where donations from Cairo pay for pizza for students running phone banks, and where people wearing Green Bay Packers’ caps greet each other on the street with the steelworkers’ slogan “one day longer.” It is a universe where more than 100,000 people—busloads of nurses and teachers from Milwaukee, sanitation workers, brigades of corrections officers, fire-fighters decked out in their gear, and police-officers carrying “cops for labor” signs stand ankle-deep in snow in 15 degree weather singing union ditties and Bob Marley songs. Two weeks ago, to quote a colleague at UW’s School for Workers, “I didn’t know this many people knew what a union was.”

The parallel universe began to take shape when our governor, Scott Walker, whose campaign was financed largely by the (tea-party supporting) Koch brothers, put through a “budget repair bill” that stripped public sector workers of their bargaining rights. (The bill also allows the transfer of state energy resources to private companies without a bidding process and permits the governor to rewrite Medicaid policy with minimal input from the Legislature or the public). Students were the first to march to the capitol on Monday, February 14th. On Tuesday, Madison school teachers called in sick and turned out at the capitol in droves. The fact that our rallies have been universally acclaimed as well-behaved has everything to do with the number of elementary school teachers in our ranks. They really know how to shush a crowd, lead chants and call out boorish behavior. As teachers risked disciplinary action by staying out all week, they were joined by AFSCME and SEIU members from all walks of public service, firefighters and cops, (who came in solidarity, even though their leaders had contributed to the governor’s campaign and were exempted from the Repair Bill’s provisions) and then by private sector steelworkers, electrical workers, and laborers. Standing together in the capitol rotunda on Tuesday, we learned the extraordinary news that Democratic senators had walked out to deny the Senate the quorum needed to pass the bill. We cheered them as they marched out of the building and headed for the Illinois border. This act provided citizens with the time needed to spark a public debate over the bill, which would otherwise have been passed, without any discussion, by the Republican majorities in both houses.

The state of Wisconsin has the kind of civic infrastructure that can support this kind of public debate. While union membership is just below 7% in the private sector nationally, and 36% in the public sector, in Wisconsin public sector union membership is close to 50%. The South-Central Federation of Labor provides a collaborative umbrella for unions in the most populated regions of the state. And there is a dense infrastructure of grassroots organizations and resources that support and rub shoulders with labor: the Inter-faith Coalition for Worker Justice, Voces de la Frontera, the Center for Wisconsin Strategy, Fair Wisconsin. There is also the amazing, 45-year old Teaching Assistants Association at the University of Wisconsin. Beginning on Monday, the TAA set up a forward operating base in the capitol, where they staffed a phone bank calling people in legislative districts throughout Wisconsin to urge them to contact their Republican senators and assembly representatives. They recruited marshals to help with crowd management, kept a drum circle going in the rotunda, and slept in the capitol at night to prevent the Assembly or Senate from holding meetings without notifying Democrats (a ploy they tried twice, in various forms). As food donations poured in, the TAA organized them and routed them to where they were needed. They set up a first aid station, a play area for kids, and made the bust of progressive senator Bob Lafollette into a shrine. At the time I write this, the capitol has been occupied for two weeks, and so far (that may change tonight), our police officers have defied an assembly bill demanding that it be cleared and shut down at night. The images of this struggle are like a progressive fairy tale as new and old forms of community and democratic participation are cobbled together to deal with challenges as they arise.

Here are my thoughts about the broader context of what is happening here. After Obama’s election, we all heard in various places that the critique of neoliberalism was now passé, and that Keynesianism was back in town. But in fact, the emergence of a viable alternative to the hegemonic neoliberalism of the past decade created incentives for the Right to play dirty. As they lost the rhetorical high ground, they began to adopt more brutish tactics, encouraged and funded by their corporate donors. The Tea Party/Republican project in Wisconsin is a simple one of neoliberal rollback—of “killing the beast” of government. In a sense, it is a project of class secession as the very wealthy who can send their kids to private schools don’t want to pay taxes for public ones; those who can relax at country clubs, don’t want to pay for parks, etc. But this logic also operates at the level of the post-Fordist global regime of accumulation: when American corporations hired largely U.S. workers, it mattered to them that they were healthy and educated. But as they began to subcontract production overseas, they became unwilling to support these public sector services. The links between production and consumption, between actions and accountability have been broken. When Republican governors refer to state workers as “welfare queens” who produce nothing, they mean that they produce nothing they and their elite backers need. Increasingly, I have come to believe that after the revolution at state capitols across the nation, the task at hand will be fighting “free trade” and reconstituting progressive regional relationships between production and consumption, action and accountability.

Jane Collins teaches Community & Environmental Sociology and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


Members of SUNTA are welcome to contribute essays to this blog site that are relevant to the themes of urban, national, and transnational global anthropology. In order to submit an essay for consideration, please see Guidelines for Blog Essay Submission.

All opinions expressed in the essays of this blog are those of their individual authors, and do not represent the official opinions or views of of the American Anthropological Association, The Society of Urban National and Transnational Global/Anthropology, or of the officers of these associations.

Inaugural Commentary: Cities, Hunger, Food Prices, Social Order

Don Nonini

According to the New York Times (January 5, 2011), world food prices are on the rise again to a peak since their previous high point which occurred with the onset of the world financial crisis in 2008. What does this mean for the cities of the world? As Mike Davis reminds us in his book Planet of Slums, more than half of the human population of the world now reside in urban areas, with as many as 1 billion people living in the slums of the world’s megacities. While the majority of the world’s poorest and most hungry populations live in rural areas, still no less than 1/5 of all the malnourished people in the world in 2004 were the urban poor (Atlas of Global Inequalities), and given the hyper-rapid urbanization of the last decade, that number is no doubt even greater today. The extraordinary rapid return of global food prices (for grain, oils, and food as a whole) to an historically high level is being translated on a daily basis into conditions of food insecurity, chronic malnutrition, and outright hunger for scores of millions of the urban poor, in the large cities of the global South. It may be an oxymoron to call such an outcome of perennial global class and racial inequalities a “crisis,” but for the urban poor of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central and South America, this represents the most intense suffering, the core of what Nancy Scheper-Hughes calls “the violence of everyday life.”

The condition of the poor residents of the megacities of the global South, who now face harrowing choices as the price of rice, wheat, corn and other staples rise to the highest global levels of recorded history, indexes much about the situation of the deeply unequal world we live in. (E.g., which child or woman is to go hungry or even be left to die while others in the family eat?) The rapid growth in their number over the last five decades has to do with their massive displacement from rural areas of Africa, Latin America, and Asia due to the Green Revolution, civil war, and the seizure of their lands by corrupt state officials, warlords and criminal gangs. The colonial period in which the vast majority of rural cultivators, foragers, and pastoralists had a subsistence base in land and resources outside the capitalist economy has long since passed, and even those few small-scale groups who still have a partial base in non-commodified subsistence are tied to labor migration and monetary remittances, and reside in labor reserves that underwrite the regional labor markets of urban and extractive capitalism.

But the pillage (technically: “primitive accumulation” or “accumulation by dispossession”) continues up to the present. Most recently, state-owned and private corporations from China, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Belgium, France, India, the Netherlands, Libya, and South Korea have purchased massive areas of west, east, and central Africa at fire sale prices from corrupt state officials, intending to convert them into plantations which will export food crops to their affluent urbanites at home. During the first 11 months of 2009, more than 110,000,000 acres were sold off to international “investors” (New York Times, December 21, 2010). Those who previously occupied and cultivated the land remain on insecure tenure, or have been evicted outright. Most such people have gone to or are in process of going to the burgeoning megacities of the global South. These cities in turn have been transformed by the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and IMF into de-industrialized and bankrupted zones of unemployment, illicit trade, and informalized labor where people during the recent “best of times” lived on the edge, but now they’re at or beyond the edge of survival. The wonders of neoliberal “free trade” policies leave them without sufficient affordable food, even as their rural areas are transformed into industrial food export enclaves that subsidize the lifestyles of wealthy urbanites in the global North.

EP Thompson’s classic 1971 essay “The Moral Economy of the 18th Century English Crowd” reminds us that hungry, desperate people can be driven to collective violence, despite whatever else they are willing to put up with. Thompson’s accomplishment was to show that this is no reflex of hunger as such, but rather the heartfelt response to a violation of the implicit social contract between the urban poor of early modern England and the mercantile classes who preyed upon them by manipulating the price of bread. This was the understanding that the latter would never jeopardize the survival of the common people in order to maximize their profits – no matter whatever other predations they were capable of. Such culturally based understandings generate what I recently referred to as repressive ententes in which urban residents put up with most forms of suffering and structural violence as long as elites stop short of inflicting on them fundamental assaults on their survival like drastically increased prices in imported food staples. This was indeed what occurred in mid 2008 with food riots “broke out” in Haiti, Egypt, Burkina Faso, and Senegal, and with rising discontent elsewhere in the megacities of the global South (New York Times, April 18, 2008).

As urban anthropologists, we continue to investigate and analyze both the suffering and the protests of the poor residents of the barrios, favelas, and ghettos of these megacities of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Beyond the our commitments to the “experience-near” ethnography of misery and anger we customarily undertake, however, we must always remind ourselves of the structural conditions of the world capitalist economy, and of the nauseating conditions of “comparative disadvantage” to which corporations and corporate states now consign a huge proportion of the populations in the world’s largest cities to live through. Perhaps in 2011, we will find out again that many of them have had “enough!” As we witness their anger, we must recall that we are as deeply implicated in the structural inequalities of the global system, including that dividing cities from countrysides, as they are.

Don Nonini teaches Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is the President of the Society of Urban, National, and Transnational/Global Anthropology


Members of SUNTA are welcome to contribute essays to this blog site that are relevant to the themes of urban, national, and transnational global anthropology. In order to submit an essay for consideration, please see Guidelines for Blog Essay Submission.

All opinions expressed in the essays of this blog are those of their individual authors, and do not represent the official opinions or views of of the American Anthropological Association, The Society of Urban National and Transnational Global/Anthropology, or of the officers of these associations.

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