The stunning way the movement against Walker’s policies erupted and spread is a living lesson on how working people’s consciousness can be transformed almost overnight. Scott Walker announced his “Budget Repair Bill” on Thursday, February 10. Over the weekend, as the full scale of the attacks became clear, union leaders called for lobbying delegations and protests on Tuesday and Wednesday. More significantly, countless discussions over Facebook and email lists produced calls for more serious actions.
The protests kicked off on Monday, February 14 with a small demonstration organized by the Teaching Assistant Association (TAA), representing graduate student workers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As it was Valentine’s Day, they delivered a valentine to Scott Walker asking him not to break our hearts. Although not the strongest response imaginable, it played an important role in publicizing the bill and building for the more serious protests that followed.
On Tuesday, February 15, student walkouts occurred across Madison, with over 1,000 leaving East High School and hundreds walking out of other schools. Onawa Powell, a student at East High, helped put out the call for a walkout just one day before. “I talked to people [the day before the walkout] who had no idea what was going on, and now they’re passionate about it,” she explained after she and her classmates spent hours chanting in the Capitol rotunda.
They joined a rally of 10,000 at the Capitol that Tuesday, with big delegations from both private and public sector unions. When the firefighters, led by their bagpipe band, marched through despite their exemption from Walker’s attack on bargaining rights, cheers and tears filled the Capitol. Similar solidarity marches from the sheet metal workers and even the police occurred throughout the protests.
In a wonderful example of the instinctual internationalism of workers and young people, prominent throughout the protest were signs referring to the recent revolution in Egypt that overthrew the dictator Mubarak. Many took inspiration from the Egyptian revolution, which had given them a shot of confidence – “If a brutal dictator like Mubarak can be overthrown, why can’t we defeat Scott Walker?,” many thought.
That night, the TAA encouraged people to spend the night in the Capitol. Normally, the Capitol would be shut down during the night, but there was a public hearing going on in the state assembly that would run as long as members of the public were willing to contribute. Hundreds of people followed the TAA’s call and the hearings ran nonstop throughout the week. High school and university students in particular, as well as the teaching assistants, played a key role in keeping the Capitol occupied during the night.
During the day, the crowd inside the Capitol would grow to the thousands, resulting in the famous pictures of protesters with signs filling up four floors of the Capitol rotunda. Not depicted in those photos were the chants of the protesters being amplified by the Capitol dome. By the end of the week, these indoor protests would turn into a genuine mass occupation of the Capitol.
After the successful youth actions in Madison, Facebook erupted with calls for walkouts, and on Wednesday, February 16 dozens of schools statewide felt the impact. Inspired by the bold action of thousands of students walking out, many Madison teachers started joining in by calling in sick. This sick-out spread so widely that the leaders of Madison Teachers Incorporated (MTI), representing public school teachers in Madison, convinced the school district to shut down the schools for the day. Upwards of 30,000 encircled the Capitol, and they initiated an occupation encampment inside the building. These sick-outs were organized from below by the teachers themselves without waiting for approval from their union until after Wednesday. This was effectively a wildcat strike, even though it wasn’t legally classified as such.
By the evening of Wednesday, February 16, with the vote scheduled for the next day, it was clear that teachers and students across the state were following the lead of Madison. This put pressure on the more conservative Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), representing 92,000 teachers across the state. Attempting to catch up to their membership, at the last minute union officials encouraged a statewide teacher sick-out for the next morning, Thursday.
The teachers participating in the sick-outs were met with predictable attacks from the corporate media for allegedly abandoning their students. Nevertheless, public solidarity for the teachers increased, with parents and students participating in the protests alongside them. Notably, doctors and nurses joined in the protests and offered to write sick notices for anybody who was participating in the sick-outs.
The TAA responded to the teachers’ sick-outs with their own “teach-outs,” urging teaching assistants to bring their classes out on “field trips” to the Capitol and, barring that, to reschedule their classes. Because this put the burden on the teaching assistants rather than the university, it wasn’t as effective as the sick-outs. A lot of TAA members, especially in the hard sciences, wanted to participate but were stopped by threats from the university. Nonetheless, a sizeable contingent of teaching assistants and university students participated.
Workers in other industries, public and private, followed the teachers’ lead. The demonstration Thursday, February 17 saw over 50,000 participate. At least 30 K-12 school districts were shut down Thursday and Friday, alongside numerous university classrooms. Walker had hoped to rush through the passage of the bill during the week without giving the workers a chance to respond. By skipping work and flooding the Capitol, the workers were able to interfere with Walker’s plans.
A Temporary Victory
The vote was originally supposed to be held on Wednesday, but it was postponed a day in the face of the mass movement. In response, the actions on Thursday, February 17 were characterized by mass defiance of anti-union laws through the sick-outs, walkouts, and teach-outs. It was in this context that the 14 Democratic senators, facing huge pressure from below, made the decision to flee the state to neighboring Illinois, giving the movement a temporary victory and allowing time for a continued escalation.
The flight of the Democratic senators meant that the Senate no longer had the quorum necessary to vote. This unprecedented event helped to put Wisconsin in the international spotlight. Comedian Stephen Colbert, evoking the recurring political troubles in the Middle East, dubbed the events “Crisis in the Middle West.” Initially, no one knew where the senators had gone. To avoid the state troopers who were dispatched to find them and force them to attend the vote, the senators crossed state lines and convened in a hotel in Rockford, Illinois, where they would be protected from Wisconsin state law. They remained in Illinois until the passage of the bill in March. Their actions made them heroes to the movement and enemies to the Tea Party; they were referred to as the “Fab 14.” However, the real heroes were the students and workers whose walkouts, sick-outs, and teach-outs made this victory possible.
Before the protests began, the Wisconsin Democrats were not very friendly to the Wisconsin labor movement. Leading up to the 2010 elections, the Democrat-run state government kept state workers in protracted 15-month, go-nowhere contract negotiations. These stalled negotiations allowed the newly elected Republicans to reject state workers’ contracts altogether when they were elected.
But the movement had gotten so large that if the Democrats gave in, they would be exposed as the anti-labor politicians they really are. The real lesson of this victory is that when working people take collective action, they can force politicians to listen. The flooding of the Capitol with thousands of demonstrators, the mass sick-outs, and an effective strike action by MTI and WEAC in shutting down schools across the state had this effect on the Democrats. Had the movement escalated into general strike action with all the public sector unions, they could have forced the Republicans to listen as well.
The sheer militancy of the movement became apparent in the immediate response to the Democrats’ decision to flee the state. When word got out that the state police were looking for the senators to force a vote, there was a spontaneous mass sit-in, blocking the legislative chambers to prevent a forced vote from taking place. Workers and young people in the Capitol demonstrated with their bodies and through their actions that they would not tolerate Walker’s policies. Had the Democrats sold out that early into the struggle, they would have lost all credibility.
This is more than mere hair-splitting over who deserves credit for what. In the events that followed, the Democrats would play a rotten role in demobilizing the movement. Rather than trying to stop Walker’s attacks, they harnessed the mass movement into electoral support for themselves. This meant watering down the demands of the movement, helping to clear out the Capitol, and pressuring the unions not to go on strike. They were able to get away with this because of the authority they had built up resulting from their decision to flee the state. As such, the canonization of the “Fab 14” played a major role in the ultimate defeat of the movement.
Even in this victory, we saw the first signs of demobilization when it came to the question of the sick-outs. The sick-outs were built from below by the rank and file of the teachers’ unions, while the leadership only came out in support of the actions after the fact. Once the Democratic senators left the state and the sense of urgency was lost, the leadership of the teachers’ unions began to rein in the actions. On Monday, February 21, after a protracted debate, MTI voted to end the sick-outs and return to work. The attempt to continue the sick-outs lost by just ten votes. WEAC had previously called off their sick-outs without a vote, and the TAA would call off their teach-outs shortly thereafter.
Calling off an action can be justified under certain circumstances. Even in this situation, one could justify temporarily calling off the sick-outs in order to build for more organized strike action later on. But the teachers’ union leaders made no such effort. Instead, they effectively handed over leadership of the movement to the Democrats.
Despite this setback, the movement had won a victory and, in the aftermath, a wave of euphoria took over the state as workers witnessed their power firsthand. On Saturday, February 19, the protests grew dramatically as those who weren’t able to call in sick were now free to participate. The police, notorious for underestimating the size of demonstrations, estimated 60,000 people protesting outside the Capitol and 8,000 inside. Likely, it was close to 100,000. People came from all across the state and, in fact, across the country. There were people of all ages, public and private sector, union and non-union, workers and students. Solidarity demonstrations were held in every state capitol. That Saturday had been the biggest demonstration yet, but there would be bigger ones in the weeks to come.
“You have Aroused the Sleeping Giant”
The uprising of workers in Wisconsin proved an amazing answer to the pro-capitalist cynics who claimed that class struggle was a thing of the past. The labor movement, especially in the United States, has been in decline over the past few decades. Socialist Alternative has argued that with the increasing attacks on workers’ living standards and the growing determination of big business to make ordinary people pay for a crisis we didn’t create, it was only a matter of time before serious mass struggles would break out.
Filmmaker Michael Moore was correct when he said that Walker “aroused the sleeping giant known as the working people of the United States of America.” (AlterNet.org, 3/6/2011) When the economy collapsed in 2008, many people bought the line that we all had to make sacrifices. But Walker’s attack on public sector workers was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The first response from most people to the 2008 recession, with little if any experience of mass struggle or understanding of the full depth of the crisis they faced, was one of shock rather than action. But this does not mean workers are unwilling to fight. Following job losses, pay cuts, and bank bailouts, Walker’s assault on workers’ rights was so drastic and blatant that people had no choice but to move into struggle. This shows that, when workers are faced with events that challenge their previously held worldviews, they can take action quite spontaneously and even go over the heads of their self-proclaimed leaders. We can expect similar spontaneous outbursts in the future.