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.
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