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Home » Clarion » 2011 » April 2011 » Inside the Wisconsin Uprising: Teaching assistants help spark a new movement in labor

Inside the Wisconsin Uprising: Teaching assistants help spark a new movement in labor


MADISON, Wisconsin – When Governor Scott Walker submitted a bill to the Wisconsin State Legislature on February 11, he said it was a “budget repair bill,” urgently needed to close a midyear budget deficit. The bill also stripped almost all collective bargaining rights from 175,000 public workers, but Walker insisted his only concern was balancing the budget. He thought his bill would be approved within a week.

Instead, Walker’s attack on labor ignited a protest movement that has rocked the Badger State and electrified union supporters across the country. After a month of sharp and growing conflict, Walker finally won passage of an anti-union bill – separate from any budget measure. But he also provoked the largest demonstration in Wisconsin history, at which well over 100,000 people vowed to force him from office in order to win back their stolen rights.


The Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin (UW) played a central role from the beginning of what became the largest, most dynamic action by the labor movement in several decades. The 2,800-member TAA, the oldest graduate employee union in the nation, organized the first protest march against Walker’s bill on Monday, February 14 – a demonstration they had originally planned as a protest against budget cuts.

Details of Walker’s anti-union proposal were first reported February 10, the evening before the bill was introduced. “There was disbelief at first,” TAA Co-President Kevin Gibbons told Clarion. “It was so draconian and extreme.” In short order, TAA retooled its protest plans.

On February 14, more than a thousand people delivered valentines to Gov. Walker’s office, urging him not to “break our hearts” with union-busting and cutbacks. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, “People in the typically quiet, business-like Capitol looked on nervously at the group as they jammed the corridor leading to Walker’s office, pouring valentines on the desk of Walker’s office guard, their chants echoing off the building’s stately walls.”

Inside the Wisconsin State Capitol on February 18.

The next day 10,000 people rallied outside the State Capitol and several thousand more took the raucous protest inside and set up a protest encampment. By now, the UW students had been joined by workers from all walks of life, as well as 800 area high school students who walked out of class to join the demonstrations.

The crowds continued to swell when the Madison schools closed for three days due to massive teacher “sick-outs.” In many cases, the striking teachers were joined at the protests by students and their parents.

According to Elizabeth Wrigley-Field of the TAA, the teachers’ boldness changed the tenor of the movement. “It became more than a big rally,” Wrigley-Field said. “It became a labor action.” The occupation of the Capitol had a similarly electric effect: this was not just a larger-than-usual rally after which everyone would go home.

The Wisconsin Constitution guarantees public access to the Capitol as part of the right “to petition the government, or any department thereof.” The protesters initially remained in the building overnight during round-the-clock hearings on the legislation, conducted by Democratic members of the State Assembly that lasted for over a week. Thousands of ordinary Wisconsinites used their two-minute time allotment to describe the impact of Walker’s bill – not only its union-busting, but also budgetary provisions such as the evisceration of BadgerCare, Wisconsin’s healthcare program for children and low-income people.


“It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed,” Wrigley-Field said. “So many people were talking about how their lives would be ruined if this bill passed.”

On February 17, fourteen Democratic members of the Wisconsin Senate fled across the state line to Illinois, denying Republicans the quorum needed to call the Senate into session for budgetary measures. Two days later, an estimated crowd of 68,000 descended on Madison, along with the national media.

Inside the ornate Capitol building, a small, self-organizing city flourished. The TAA took on a coordinating role in the occupation, with an ad hoc headquarters in a third-floor legislative conference room. “One person staffed the door while reading Luther’s sermons for her dissertation, and another wore a piece of masking tape with the simple message, ‘Need a task?’” recalled PSC President Barbara Bowen, who went to Wisconsin and stayed for a week at the AFT’s request (see below).

Volunteers distributed donated food that poured into the building and set up a first aid station, a children’s space, an information booth, a library, a lost-and-found, and a charging station for laptops and cell phones. A visitor could leave her bag lying on the floor and come back to find it in the same place hours later.

Visitors walking down a long corridor toward the center of the Capitol building were greeted with an array of homemade signs (“In Wisconsin, We Drink Beer Not Tea”; “You can’t scare me, I work with high school students”; “Screw Us and We Multiply”) and then the growing roar from the center of the building. At the epicenter, the crowd swung between singing “Solidarity Forever” and chanting slogans like “Whose house? Our house!” and “This is what democracy looks like!”

When the singing and chanting subsided, ordinary citizens took turns speaking at an open mic on the ground floor of the 203-foot-high rotunda.


“We’ve got anarchists and cops, socialists and small business owners, Green Party members and steelworkers, teachers and students and drop-outs all working together,” Jordan Petersen, a state-worker-turned-protest-organizer explained to Clarion. “There is something very special happening in this building.”

Quiet time started by 10 pm, and the rhythmic pounding of the drum circle in the center of the rotunda would give way to quiet jam sessions in corner alcoves. Children in pajamas raced around the circular balcony overlooking the rotunda, while their parents chatted with friends at the end of a long day. Gradually, people would fall asleep on the sleeping bags and thin foam mattresses they rolled out on marble floors.

“I never thought it would happen in my lifetime,” said Elizabeth Milovets, a senior at a local high school who camped out overnight at the Capitol with a group of her teenage friends. “We’re living history, not just listening to it.”

Milovets told Clarion she joined the protest to support her teachers, and out of concern that Gov. Walker would raise University of Wisconsin tuition by as much as 26%.

While the protest at the State Capitol was suffused with a spirit of solidarity and a keen awareness of the Right’s attack on the middle and working classes, the demands of most protesters were moderate and pragmatic. They understood unions make their members’ lives better and workers who want a union should not be denied the right to organize. For many, the anger over Walker’s power play was fueled foremost by a sense of betrayal. He had violated their Midwestern sense of fairness.

“I naively assumed that while I was earning a living and raising my kids, democracy would continue and everything would be fine. I was wrong,” said Maggie Wolfe, a teacher’s aide and mother of three who was sitting on a foam mattress with a sign propped in front of her that read: “Freedom is when the people speak. Democracy is when the government listens.”

The fight for democracy was a theme that ran throughout the protest movement, especially the idea that there is more to democracy than voting on Election Day. It also means taking action to hold elected officials accountable, demonstrators said – as illustrated by the fact that Walker never mentioned gutting collective bargaining during last fall’s campaign.

On February 21, the 47,000-member South Central Federation of Labor in Madison unanimously endorsed consideration of a general strike, something no US city has seen since 1946. It noted that each union local had to make its own strike decision, but called for educating members on the “organization and function of a Wisconsin general strike.”

On Saturday, February 26, a crowd of close to 100,000 people marched on the State Capitol, undeterred by a steady snowfall and temperatures in the teens. Walker had sought to limit opposition and pit public workers against each other by exempting police and firefighter unions from his bill. Instead, off-duty police and firefighters joined the throngs at the Capitol.

“We’re going to be next,” Adam Wunsch, a firefighter intern from Fitchburg, Wisconsin, told Clarion.

“A lot of police officers tend to be conservative. But they know the difference between right and wrong,” said Jim Palmer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, which represents 11,000 municipal police officers from over 380 locals in Wisconsin. “We’re not going to take a short-term exemption and sell out so many devoted public servants.”


The leadership of Wisconsin’s main public-sector unions agreed to Gov. Walker’s demands to have state workers pay 12.6% of their health insurance benefits and fork over 5.8% of their pay toward their pension (a 7% to 20% pay cut, depending on a worker’s income). The decision was designed to sharpen the focus on collective bargaining, and gain support from those Wisconsin residents who accepted Walker’s assertion that “we’re broke,” but were uncomfortable with taking away long-established rights.

Walker, however, refused to take “yes” for an answer. He continued to insist on adoption of his entire anti-union package – and his standing in state opinion polls, already damaged, slid sharply.

“We’re willing to give in on the money, but we want to have a voice in our classrooms because what happens to us affects our kids,” said Kimberly Myers, a 13-year teacher from Colfax, Wisconsin, who came to Madison for the march on February 26.

Private-sector unionists also came out to show their support.

Walker “wants to get rid of all unions,” said a member of the Milwaukee-based Steamfitters Local 601. “Break one union, break them all,” another steamfitter agreed.


Over the following week, Walker used Capitol police to slowly squeeze the occupation of the Capitol building to an end. But it was a long, drawn-out process, as police who were not directly under Walker’s control declined to take part. Some off-duty cops, in fact, helped prolong the occupation by joining it, sleeping overnight on the marble floors.

After weeks of growing conflict, with Walker’s poll numbers sinking like a stone, Republican lawmakers decided they had to bring the month-long standoff to an end. While rumors about negotiations circulated in the press, GOP state senators launched a surprise attack. In a late-night maneuver on March 9, they forced through the anti-union measures in a separate bill, dropping all the fiscal provisions that had triggered stricter quorum requirements.

Democrats charged that the sudden move violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law, and vowed to challenge it in court. As the after-hours legislative drama unfolded, an angry crowd outside the Capitol grew to 7,000, while thousands more inside briefly reoccupied the building.

By passing the “budget repair bill” minus the budget repair, union supporters said Republicans had made clear what the fight was really about: an effort to bust unions and grab political power.

On Saturday, March 12, the labor movement responded with the largest demonstration in Wisconsin history. Well over 100,000 angry people vowed to win their rights back by forcing Walker and his Republican majority out of office through a recall drive.


Eight Republican state senators are targets of the recall effort. Others – and Gov. Walker – will not be vulnerable until they have completed the first year of their current term in office. But early indications are that all of them should be worried.

To force a recall election, organizers must secure signatures equal to 25% of the total votes cast in the last election for governor within 60 days. That’s a tall order – but after two weeks of petitioning, recall activist say they’ve already collected 45% of the number they need.

While chants of “General strike!” rang out on the night of March 9, that has not emerged as the movement’s focus. Some, like TAA activist Peter Rickman, question whether “it’s the best use of our resources, the best use of the sympathy…among the public at large.” Others say it’s a longer range option.

Unions face a heavy burden simply dealing with the immediate consequences of Walker’s anti-union law. “All of our contract that we have worked for over decades is null and void,” said the TAA’s Gibbons. “This bill is a nightmare.”


Walker’s law bans public employers from accepting union members’ requests to have dues deducted from their paychecks, an attempt to cripple unions financially. “The employer can take deductions for the United Way…but they are prohibited from collecting union dues,” notes a police union, the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association. Dues checkoff was a central issue in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike during which Dr. Martin Luther King lost his life (see p.11).

The TAA plans to canvass members seeking authorization for monthly electronic transfers from their bank, and will organize union-building parties at which they hope to sign up many people at once.

Like other public unions, the TAA now faces annual certification elections, forcing it to put resources into a permanent organizing drive.

But in the fight to overturn these restrictions, Gibbons says the TAA also has new sources of strength. “A lot more people are now aware of what a union is capable of,” he told Clarion.

General meetings now attract hundreds of participants, Gibbons said, and dozens of people are participating in each of the union’s committees. This provides a window of strength, in which the TAA can tap the energy of their new movement, before the long-term drag of Walker’s restrictions is in full effect.

“If there’s a time we can push through this,” Gibbons said, “now is the time.”

Union members across the state appear determined to win their rights back, and early signs suggest that labor’s new momentum could alter Wisconsin politics in ways that Walker never had in mind.

A popular chant on March 12 caught Wisconsin unionists’ current mood:

“Scott, you may not remember me, but I can recall you!”

For more Wisconsin coverage in Clarion, click here and here.

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