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Home » Reports From Wisconsin: Barbara Bowen

Reports From Wisconsin: Barbara Bowen

February 28 | February 25 | February 24 | February 23 |

February 28, 2011
New York City

I had no time to write in the last two days I was in Madison, so this last installment of my blog comes to you from the PSC office. I am glad to be back because of the urgency of the work here—our own battle in New York is nearly as dangerous as the one in Madison—but I have to admit to being a bit blue, leaving behind the people I worked with in Wisconsin. They still have a tremendous fight in front of them, and difficult strategic questions about how to win it.

WeAreWisconsin.jpgI came back to find that the PSC’s “We Are All Wisconsin” stickers were ready, that CUNY faculty and staff turned out in force at the solidarity rally this weekend, and that Retirees Chapter Chair Jim Perlstein gave a rousing speech at the rally on behalf of the PSC. That solidarity is hugely important to those on the frontlines of the action in Wisconsin; I kept underestimating what it meant. People stopped in their tracks at the rally on Saturday when I told them I had come from New York to offer support—and then reacted even more powerfully when they learned that hundreds of my union members were also behind them.

Demonstrators were well aware that the presence of “outsiders” was being used to discredit them, so many carried signs with slogans like “Outside Agitator from Oshkosh” or “I Live in Wisconsin and I Vote in Wisconsin.” At the same time, however, they understood that we were there not only to help and to learn, but because the battle to protect union rights in Wisconsin is about whether any working people in this country will have access to the power that comes from taking collective action. I heard one man talking on his cell phone at the end of the demonstration: “I loved the demonstration but why did they have actors with some connection to Wisconsin speaking to us? I wanted to hear national union leaders.”

Saturday in Madison, the day before the big rally, was like a festival of workers. Union members had begun pouring into the capital, and the streets and restaurants were transformed by their presence. The only thing I can compare it to was the experience of being in Washington, D.C. during the days leading up to Barack Obama’s inauguration. Those few days were like a festival of freedom from racism; everyone felt it. Not that Obama’s inauguration meant the end of racism, but it broke a taboo, and the result was a city transformed by relief from the oppressive weight of racism—a glimpse of another possible culture.

I had the same feeling in Madison on Saturday. It was a glimpse of what a world with real workers’ solidarity might be like. People were thrilled to see each other—we greeted each other like friends on the street and in restaurants. The Capitol rang with cheers when each new union group paraded through—nurses, building engineers, State troopers. When I stopped for lunch in a local diner—joined by two PSC staff members and one retiree who had come on their own—we found the place full of firefighters from all the little towns in Wisconsin. Before long, they had erupted into music, providing an impromptu pipe-and-drum concert.

By Sunday, with the snow falling and unseasonably cold temperatures even for Wisconsin, the crowds were thickening. I spent time in the street and in the Capitol, ending the day inside the occupied Capitol, where the impromptu “lending library” on the marble floor now had a new publication on display—Clarion. The associate editor of the PSC paper was among those who traveled on his own to Wisconsin, and there a stack of our papers, required reading (or at least offered reading) for the protesters.

Back in the thick of PSC work, I can’t write any more today, but hope to reflect more tomorrow, especially on what I learned and what happens now.

[Click here for more Wisconsin solidarity news, updates, links, videos and events]

February 25, 2011
Madison, Wisconsin

After an 800-mile trip around Wisconsin, I arrived back in Madison last night. Yesterday was the AFT’s turn to provide support for the occupying protesters in the Capitol, so I was glad to be back in time to join them. I know that many PSC members would give a lot to be here in person supporting the protest, and I have tried everywhere I go to convey not just my support, but yours. I felt that especially last night, sleeping on the floor of the Capitol with hundreds of others.

It was an eventful night. The teaching assistants who jump-started the occupation and now have organized a whole community in the Capitol were huddled in their hearing room, as rumors flew about attempts to end the occupation today or tomorrow. Hundreds of people streamed through the halls and rotunda below, carrying sleeping bags and hunting for a place to sleep. Meanwhile, the noise level grew, as the TV monitors above the crowd showed the Assembly debating Governor Walker’s bill. The crowd would fall silent in a moment, at a sign from one of the marshals, as the Democrats voiced their opposition.

The lights are on all night, and many simply don’t sleep. I had found a spot with other teachers, healthcare workers and AFT staff, but we were all on our feet when it became clear that the Assembly Republicans had forced through a vote on the bill. The bill cannot be passed until it also has Senate support, and Assembly support was expected, but there was still an intense feeling of betrayal. Wisconsinites know their legislators; many are teachers and neighbors from the small towns I visited; they greet them by name. When news of the vote came, angry shouts of “Shame, shame!” filled the space, and everyone was up and out of their sleeping bags at two in the morning.

Democratic legislators emerged from their chamber and came out to the crowd; they were greeted with sustained ovations and a very Wisconsin cheer: several minutes of reciprocal thank-yous. The legislators shouted to the crowd, “Thank you, thank you!” and the crowd shouted back, “Thank YOU, thank YOU!”

There is a profound relationship between what the protesters and doing and what the legislators feel empowered to do. They say themselves that they would never have held out this long in the legislature or prevented the vote in the State Senate without the support of the protesters. To walk out of their 17-hour hearing and find thousands of people camping out in the Capitol to push them on has made a strong legislative response possible, even thinkable for them.

The big question now is what kind of organizing will be necessary not just to sustain the protest, but to defeat the bill, and in a way that makes similar attempts elsewhere less likely. A huge rally is planned for tomorrow, and that is part of labor’s response, but much more will be needed, I feel. I’ll be working behind the scenes on the rally today and tomorrow—and am joined by a PSC member and staffer who drove all the way here from New York to help.

Excitement about the rally was palpable in the small towns I visited in northern Wisconsin. I think that’s because peole’s sense of the possibilities of political protest have been expanded and transformed by what they have seen here.

To give you some sense of what it’s like in the occupied Capitol: you wake up at three in the morning, body-to-body with other sleepers, and find volunteers organized by the teaching assistants quietly tying up huge bags of recycling and thanking the building staff for their work. You find the walls plastered with signs that seem to change every hour, including several that warmly thank the building staff for keeping it clean. Or you pass the “lending library” set up in one corner of the rotunda, and find Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear side by side with Althusser, Adorno and maps of downtown Madison.

[Click here for more Wisconsin solidarity news, updates, links, videos and events]

February 24, 2011
LaCrosse, Wisconsin

The battle for rights and power for working people in Wisconsin has now spread throughout the state, as more than 100 local rallies have been held today and 200 are planned for tomorrow–the biggest single day of union events in Wisconsin’s history. I’ve been lucky to be a part of some of them. Everywhere I speak to teachers, parents, faculty, professional staff, I convey the message that the members of our union are supporting them and planning to wear stickers saying “We Are All Wisconsin.” We ARE all Wisconsin, of course–because this attack on working people is not local–but your solidarity means more than you might have imagined.

Here’s what demonstrations are like in Wisconsin.

Last night more than 300 people stood calmly in the falling snow for an evening rally and vigil in the little town of Superior, built by longshoremen on the banks of Lake Superior. When asked by the speaker at the end of the rally to spend a little time with each other, they simply stood in little knots talking, as the snow thickened, no one rushing to leave. A professor talked to me about how many people had rushed up to him in the preceding week to ask for a union card, and a teacher talked about her Republican friends who had come to her house to apologize for voting for Scott Walker. The whole group presented a box of homemade food to the wife of one of the fourteen Democratic State Senators who have fled the state to prevent a vote, sympathetic with her need for support as a retired teacher whose husband has had his paycheck embargoed.

At another stop–this time at the Temple of Labor in Eau Clair–a man observed to me that Governor Walker’s attempt to turn one group of working people against another was partly a result of the labor movement’s failure. If organized labor had lived up to its real role of fighting for all workers, not just for union members, he said, there would have been no “haves” and “have nots” to be posed against each other after the recession. His hope was that the labor movement would redefine its mission as fighting for all working people.

And this afternoon I have the honor of welcoming the newest local into the AFT: the facuty at University of Wisconsin LaCrosse voted today, overwhelmingly, to form a union. The support only grew as Governor Walker’s assault intensified. I will tell them at their party that the Chemistry Department at CCNY just voted a resolution of support. The LaCrosse union vote is the culmination of a long campaign, but it is also an act of defiance in this political environment.

[Click here for more Wisconsin solidarity news, updates, links, videos and events]

February 23, 2011
Eau Clair, Wisconsin

I am writing from northern Wisconsin, where I have traveled with the state president of the American Federation of Teachers, Bryan Kennedy, to offer support and to work with union members throughout the state in support of the protests in Madison. Thanks to the willingness of the other PSC officers and staff to take up my responsibilities while I was away, I was able to say yes to the AFT’s request for me to come. I’m also grateful to the many PSC members who have sent wishes of solidarity—I have tried to convey them all.

WisconsinProtest.jpgEven though I had seen pictures and videos of the scene in Madison, it was hard to realize what was happening until I was here. Everything changed when the State Capitol was occupied. That the occupation remains, so far, undisturbed, is almost impossible for us from New York to grasp. Every public building in Albany bristles with metal detectors and barriers to the public; the relatively barrier-free atmosphere in Madison made an occupation more possible to imagine and accomplish.

Labor leaders describe this as the epicenter of the labor movement in this country—and it is—but it didn’t become the epicenter of a movement until the unionized teaching assistants from Madison decided that business as usual could not go on. They came to deliver Valentines to the governor on February 14, asking him to stop breaking their hearts and imposing more fees, and then stayed when Governor Walker announced his all-out assault on unions, people’s right to representation, and working-class power. They have simply never left.

Now there are hundreds more sleeping inside, and a rotating group of unionists massing every day in support—teachers one day, nurses the next, building trades the next. Meanwhile, deep piles of snow, icy streets, and Teamsters handing out “free brat”—bratwurst rolls.

But the protestors haven’t just occupied the Capitol, they have transformed it, rewritten the rules of sit-ins or occupations. The first thing you notice is the sound. All day long, without interruption, the rotunda is filled with noise. Drummers form a circle in the center, marshals lead chants, and visting groups of unionists march through the crowd, to the cheers of all. I saw parents bringing their children so they could witness it, building-trades workers signing with teaching assistants, and signs from unions throughout the country pasted on the Capitol walls. In my next posting, I’ll describe the hub, the teaching assistants’ room, where 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?” We have a lot to learn from them.

[Click here for more Wisconsin solidarity news, updates, links, videos and events]

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