A guest post by Michael Verderame
This Sunday a fellow member of the University of Illinois Graduate Employees Organization, Zach Poppel, and I traveled to Madison to support the occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol. We went there in support not just of public workers in Wisconsin, but of the very idea of collective bargaining. Many of us also were there because we know graduate employees in Wisconsin, and know how higher education in Wisconsin will be decimated by these proposals. The University of Wisconsin would find it much harder to retain faculty if its professors have to surrender their hard-fought gains in collective bargaining (currently faculty on the Eau Claire and Superior campuses are unionized, and the LaCrosse campus recently voted for unionization as well). Similar proposals for gutting unions are being pursued elsewhere–Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky. Moreover, in an underreported proposal, Governor Walker is seeking to separate the Madison campus from the rest of the UW system, essentially privatizing the campus by raising tuition to private university levels.
We saw this as everyone’s fight. We had both been energized by the previous day’s experiences—Zach had organized the Springfield rally, which had several dozen GEO participants, and I had gone to Madison with several dozen other GEO members. In Urbana we had a simultaneous rally that drew about 150 people. From our union alone, over 100 people have traveled to Madison since the protests began. Zach and I both wanted to build on that energy.
By the time of the departure, we knew that it was uncertain whether we would be able to get into the building, and therefore we were ready to support our colleagues inside who may have faced potential arrest. GEO staffer Amy Livingston and History steward Anna Kurhajec had arrived last night, and Officer-at-Large Leighton Christiansen came with another labor group this morning.
By the time we parked, walked to the capitol, and got into the line for entrance, it was about 3:20, and the police had promised to close the doors promptly at 4:00. The line was moving slowly (police were allowing one person in for every two that left), but we knew that Leighton was inside. Sometime around 3:45 we resigned ourselves to the fact that we probably wouldn’t get in, though we stayed in line. Shortly before 4:00, we got word that Amy and Anna had been among the last people to make it in after waiting about two hours. When the doors closed at 4:00, the outside crowd chanted “Let Us In” for 15 more minutes.
You all can see what happened on the inside on TV feeds and on Youtube videos. On the outside, we saw an energetic protest that still had the spirit of Saturday’s rally. Despite the bitter cold, people were in good spirits. We kept hearing conflicting reports about the status of the people inside. Earlier in the day we had heard promises that there would be no arrests; later on it seemed like arrests were a likelihood. While still waiting in line, I had scrawled the GEO’s Kerry Pimblott’s telephone number on my arm with a permanent marker in case of arrest—a surreal experience for someone who’s never even had a speeding ticket. I had to explain what was going on to my parents, who couldn’t understand why I would “jeopardize” my future career as a scholar and educator. But to me, what we were doing in Madison was essential to secure the career I want to build, to protect the conditions for teaching and learning.
Once the doors were closed, of course we were worried about our people inside. We received a blessing from GEO headquarters to leave if we wanted, that other people could come up to bail them out, but Zach and I were both firmly resolved that we wanted to bail them out. It would get them out much faster than if someone new had to drive up from Champaign. And to be honest, I think both of us felt disappointed that we weren’t able to be in the Capitol, and we wanted to be there to help the people who were. The plan was for us to be their first phone call if they were arrested. There were ACLU representatives available to bail people out, but they would be responsible for all the protesters. The difference between us bailing them out and the ACLU bailing them out could have meant a difference of several hours or more in jail time for Amy and Anna. (The labor group Leighton had gone up with was prepared to post his bail if necessary).
The crowd was lively and many were in constant contact with people inside. At one point we formed a human chain around the building. Protesters made a commitment to stay until either everyone was out of the building (one way or another) or until the police had announced there woule be no arrests. Driveways, entrances, and exits were blocked. Some of the people inside chose to leave voluntarily upon police requests, and were cheered by the crowd outside as they left the building. Others (several hundred) stayed inside, understanding that they were risking their own liberty to do so.
As the temperatures dropped, people climbed up to the second floor to get a sight of the people inside. We also held a candlelight vigil. Chants and drumming continued. Of course, as basically an unplanned event, it was a much smaller crowd than the massive Saturday rally, but it still maintained tremendous energy. For me, the most thrilling part was hearing the car horns of supporters driving the streets around the capitol. Throughout the day there had been constant supportive car honks. At some point, though, they fell into a regular pattern: a call-and-response chorus version of the favorite union chant, “This is what democracy looks like,” which was surprisingly well-coordinated. This kept up for well more than an hour, as each successive wave of commuters picked up on the game and kept it going. This will be one of my favorite memories.
Though none of us could get in the building, we were heartened to see food and supplies go in, as well as additional press. By 7:00 we had received word that everyone inside had been guaranteed they would be able to spend the night peacefully and would not be arrested. Leighton, Amy, and Anna are still inside as I write, along with hundreds of other protesters.
Once the outside protest dispersed and we knew Leighton, Amy, and Anna would not need bail, we headed home. Stopping to warm up at a local bar, we overheard the news that Sen. Dale Schulz had switched his vote on the bill. We now need only two additional senators to kill Scott Walker’s budget bill and allow the Wisconsin 14 to come home. When this was announced in the bar, there were cheers throughout. Talking to our people inside, I was glad that they also had learned about Sen. Schultz’s switch and there was cheering inside.
One thing you notice in Madison is that just about every local business has a window sign supporting public sector union rights. Many of the people I saw both days had signs proclaiming that they were “private sector workers,” “small business owners,” “non-union members,” and “taxpayers”—the groups Walker claims to represent—who were coming out to support their union brothers’ and sisters’ rights.
Right now, Walker is thoroughly despised in Madison. Over both days I was there I saw one right-wing counter-protestor, against approximately 120,000-150,000 of us. What I did see was a massive group of people (and their dogs), diverse in their race, ethnicity, age, economic background, sexual identity, religion, and even in their professed politics (it was surprising how many “conservatives” believe in union rights). All of them have had enough of Gov. Walker, after he’s been in office less than two months. An incredible proliferation of clever signs lambastes Walker and his multi-billionaire benefactors, the Koch brothers—punning and the double entendre are very alive in the Badger state.
But there is a serious tone as well. People here profess their disgust for Walker’s willingness, caught on tape, to plant agents provocateur in the crowd to try to cause violence and discredit the movement. What kind of governor, the Madison Chief of Police asked, would consider risking the safety of law enforcement officers and protesters, including their children, for his political gain? http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/116828353.html. And Walker ultimately backed down from the idea only because he decided it would hurt him politically.
It was also a crowd that connected the dots to larger social issues, and demonstrated precisely the kind of critical self-awareness that Left intellectuals often claim to be unable to find in the American working and middle classes. These were not people marching, as the Right charges, just to protect their own benefits. The people marching understood the connections between war spending, corporate welfare, and tax cuts on the one hand, and cuts in education, health care, and social programs on the other. They understood the absurdity of a governor who claims to have to crush unions in order to plug a $140 million deficit, right after he signed $140 million in corporate giveaways and tax breaks. They understand that the divisions between skilled and unskilled, middle and working class, union and nonunion, and private and public sector, are meant to divide working people against one another. Many of their signs emphasized the value of education, and a number took shots at Governor Walker over his own lack of a college degree. Their signs made reference to both the good (LaFollette, Feingold) and bad (McCarthy) elements of Wisconsin political tradition. These were people who believe in the public good and the public sphere, and are trying in every way they can to recreate it.
However much he likes to talk about the silent majority who supports him, I have seen almost no evidence that anyone likes or supports Walker, let alone a majority. He literally cannot be seated in a restaurant in Madison. Walker went to one of Madison’s premier fine-dining restaurants, and the owners refused to serve him. Of course, his support is higher in more rural areas than in liberal enclaves like Madison and Milwaukee, but even outside the cities he is opposed by solid majorities. Statewide, his approval rating is below 50%, an astonishing number for a governor who only won his first term in November. The polls I’ve seen have shown supermajorities (over 60%) of both Wisconsin citizens and the American public as a whole against Walker’s proposals. And that’s after a steady drumbeat in both the right-wing and mainstream media, claiming that public workers’ wages and benefits are responsible for our economic situation. On the bus I took Saturday were people from Green Bay, Stoughton, and Beloit. The caricature of the protesters as mostly urban liberals would have been absurd to anyone who spent even five minutes among the crowd.
My overall impression, like the Saturday protest the day before, was of incredible peace and harmony. (Fox News, the only national media outlet that has maintained consistent coverage, has claimed to see “hate” and “vitriol” in the eyes of the protesters, and that our goal is to shut down and harass the media. Nothing I saw in any way comports with that absurd characterization.) I have never seen this many people assembled (for any reason—not just a political rally) without any unpleasantness or violence. People speak plainly and from the heart, in their posters and in their words, about how this bill will affect their lives, how it will take away things they’ve won, not only through their individual effort but through generations of workers who have sacrificed to build their unions.
The symbolism of reclaiming the Capitol for the people against the special interests and Gov. Walker’s attack on democratic union rights was very powerful. Wisconsin’s State Capitol is a beautiful, neo-classical white marble structure, the kind of architecture that was built, at the time of the U.S.’s founding, as a kind of living expression of the idea of the public good. From the outside, you can see signs in the windows of Democratic Assemblymen/women and Senators’ offices, cheering on the protesters. Sometimes these legislators or their aides would open up their windows and wave. From the inside, the spectacular Rotunda has taken on a new kind of beauty with the thousands of signs, fliers, and banners that have transformed it into a true site of civic engagement.
I was able to get in on Saturday, along with many other GEO members, and the reborn Capitol must to be seen to be believed. The cameras don’t do it justice. On Saturday a massive, loud yet somehow completely orderly crowd alternated between cheering and drumming passionately on the one hand, and on the other, listening carefully and attentively to a stream of dozens open-mic speakers who talked poignantly about how the bill would affect their lives. I had the chance to briefly speak to the thousands of people in the crowd and found it simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. The most rousing speech I heard was a passionate and eloquent appeal by a Wisconsin preschool teacher who wondered, “Why should I have to beg this man to build the life I’ve earned?” Periodically parades would march through the center of the crowd—I saw a firefighters’ parade, and a massive parade by the Chicago Teachers’ Union, a union with new, radicalized leadership and a strong commitment to progressive labor and educational policies.
The energy is tremendous. But they will need to keep it up in the next few days and weeks, in order to win over more Republican Senators and finally kill the bill. I hope to make it back up to Madison (my third trip this week) to spend a night with the brave workers of Wisconsin (spearheaded, I should say, by the unbelievable UW grad local, the Teaching Assistants’ Association). Others will as well. I will say, for those who haven’t yet been to Madison, it is an experience you will never forget.
Two weeks ago I remember telling someone that “Wisconsin is coming to all of America next.” At the time, this sounded ominous and threatening. Now, it has become transformed into something hopeful. I’d like to think that the energy, passion, selflessness, and civic engagement that Wisconsin has shown the world can become a model for all of us. Wisconsin is coming to all of America next, but not in the way Scott Walker intended.
Does anyone know how to get permanent marker writing off your skin?
Michael Verderame is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where he studies nineteenth-century British literature with a focus on literature and the environment. He is a member and activist in the Graduate Employees Organization, an AFT-affiliated union representing over 2000 teaching and graduate assistants at UIUC.
Monday afternoon update: We heard that the windows of the Capitol are being welded shut in an effort to force the protesters out. Law enforcement is not allowing new people in. There are claims that new protesters will not be allowed in unless protesters inside comply with certain (unspecified) law enforcement requests, although it’s unclear what those requests are. About 100 of the protesters remain. According to reports, Walker has shifted operational control from the Madison Police, who strongly support the protesters, to the State Troopers’ Office, whose superintendent is a political appointee of Governor Walker’s (and also, amazingly, the father of both the state Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader). A disappointed Democratic Assemblywoman Kelda Helen Roys tweeted that seven corporate lobbysists were let in even as protesters are being excluded. The ACLU has filed a suit to force the state to readmit protesters. We’ve also learned that over the night a number of people, including Anna and Amy, left overnight based on the promise they would be allowed back in at 8 a.m.) Anna and Amy are currently trying to get back in.
Nonetheless, spirits are high throughout the country. My own union, the Graduate Employees Organization, an affiliate of the AFT/IFT has been holding a 24-7 vigil ever since the protests began to support the public workers in Madison. We have hosted rallies, film screenings, lectures, teach-ins, and concerts. Members are spending every night in the basement of the YMCA, with sleeping bags and pillows. We have also hosted three local rallies in support of the 39 heroic Indiana Democratic legislators, who are staying in Urbana, just like the Wisconsin 14, in protest of anti-union and anti-education legislation. One of them came to the University to speak to undergraduate and graduate students about the issues in Indiana, and received rousing applause.
It is difficult, but we are winning. One Republican senator has already switched; as we keep the pressure up, I believe more will follow. And the lessons of Wisconsin will carry over into the rest of the country as this fight continues.
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