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.
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