It’s a bit of a surprise to suddenly be in the midst of the biggest protests I’ve seen in my 25 years in the US. Wisconsin old-timers are saying they’ve never seen anything like it—not the Vietnam War protests, not even the earlier civil rights demonstrations in Wisconsin over housing. A sea of red surrounds the Capitol all day long, and the Capitol itself is chock full, tens of thousands of people chanting, joking, and occasionally bursting into loud applause which is entirely incomprehensible given that no-one can hear anything that speakers say.
The best news-gathering source I’ve found is at GlobalHigherEd where my colleague Kris Olds is regularly updating the links, and has a lot of background information. But the short story is this: last Friday our new Governor, Scott Walker, proposed a budget repair bill which includes considerable reductions in benefits for public sector workers, the removal of collective bargaining rights over anything but pay for public sector workers, and a provision disallowing payroll deduction union dues and a requirement that workers be allowed to be union members without paying dues. With majorities in both houses he assumed he could pass the bill within the week—the plan was that he would be signing it tomorrow (I’m writing on Thursday). Last weekend it was not at all clear that the opposition would be strong, and it wasn’t really until Tuesday night, when the local teacher’s union announced a sick out for Wednesday (widely thought to be a tactical error, including, I understand, by some of the leadership) that things really got moving. The Republicans have a large majority in the Assembly, but a majority of just 5 in the Senate, so all the action is in the Senate vote. Wednesday was when it all started to happen. The estimates of 15-30,000 demonstrators are probably on the low side—at any given time there may be 15,000 at any given point in the day hundreds are walking toward the Capitol, while hundreds are marching away. Although the teachers have been in the forefront of this (many more districts were closed today), other unions have been fully involved, including the police and firefighters unions which are exempted from the bill’s provisions [CORRECTED]
Thursday’s demonstrations were larger than Wednesday’s, and tomorrow’s (Friday’s) will be bigger still. Contrary to the impression given by the national reports I have seen, hardly any of the protest or rhetoric concerns the cuts in benefits; almost the entire movement is about protecting collective bargaining rights.
Today the Senate Democrats buggered off to Rockford, Illinois (which, it has to be said, displays heroic dedication, as anyone who’s been to Rockford will know) so that the Senate lacks a quorum. This gave a huge boost to the protesters, who had been anticipating a vote and defeat today. I’ve chatted with one Democratic legislator and my wife with another: both report that the Republicans are really rattled by the response, having simply not anticipated it (no-one, absolutely no-one, did—everyone I know has been stunned, and that includes leading union organisers). I have to say the Democrats in the legislature have been solid—like the union leaderships they seem to understand that, as one just told me “we’re in the fight of our lives”. And there is a sense among the demonstrators that this is the one to win. A student (first generation, neither parent with a 4 year degree) who attended the first large demonstration of her life just emailed me:
it was a completely humbling experience. My class today was canceled (thank goodness, I was really not looking forward to having to choose) so I had the opportunity to join my roommate, who is a student teacher for MMSD, and many of his coworkers…. Even if it does not end well, seeing that many individuals rally together in support of a common cause was not only moving, but I think it sends a strong message that absolutely must be sent. Not to mention, many of those people are going to face incredible loss if this bill passes, and they deserve to be seen and heard.
The prognosis? Tomorrow national union leaders from round the country will be arriving. The Senate Democrats say they’ll stay in Illinois till Walker negotiates. Private conversations with wavering Republican Senators have apparently been intense, but none can be expected to vote against without the assurance that they will be on the winning side. I’m hoping that one theme of tomorrow’s demonstrations will be showering love on Republicans willing to oppose the bill—there have been efforts to create space for them by talking about “Courageous Republicans” and they should reach wider among the demonstrators. I’m by nature an optimist about the long term but a pessimist about the short term, so that tells you where I expect this to go, but then a week ago I would not have predicted anything but the most anodyne response to the bill.
An aside: It’s been my first close look at organising through facebook – my 14 year old (who used to be 8) has been organising high schoolers to attend: information seems to flow very efficiently, and so do ideas—her imperious statement that, tempting as they are, comparisons between Walker and Hitler are entirely inappropriate, and people should keep this in mind when making their signs, attracted thumbs up by the second. She is, with the permission of her parents, sleeping over at the Capitol tonight (I confess, the fact that one of the Assembly Democrats is a close friend and will be there all night to check on her needs made parental permission easier).