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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Wisconsin’s Inspiring Template for Worker Protest and Unity

Andy Kroll has a good MoJo article, “Inside Labor’s Epic Battle in Wisconsin: How big labor and progressive groups pulled off the biggest protests in 40 years,” featuring a dramatically told account of the protests.The lede:

They piled off of buses and out of cars, filling the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, and surrounding the towering Capitol. Thousands crowded inside the building’s beautiful rotunda, their cheers echoing throughout the domed structure. An estimated 100,000 people had descended on frigid Madison to protest Republican Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill,” a sweeping piece of legislation that would strip 170,000 public-sector workers of their right to collectively bargain.
Last Saturday’s “Rally to Save the American Dream” was the culmination of two weeks of protests and a 24-7 sit-in inside the Capitol. Not for 30 or 40 years have unions and progressive groups come together in such an outpouring of support for workers’ rights. What makes the Madison protests even more incredible is how spontaneous they have been: There has been no master plan, no long-anticipated strategy to turn Madison into ground zero for a reenergized labor movement.

Kroll explains how Wisconsin progressives rose up and got organized in the wake of the hideous beating Dems took there in November, after losing both chambers of the state legislature and watching the governorship be taken over by a union-hating ideologue. It’s an inspiring and instructive case study, one which provides hope and guidance for Dems across the nation.

Wisconsin progressives expected a “right to work” initiative to weaken unions in the private sector, and that’s what happened. But they were surprised by a measure to “wipe out” public employee unions for 170K workers in the state. Then, as Kroll reports:

By the time Walker officially unveiled his “repair” bill a day later, unions across the state had sprung into action. Some were setting up makeshift war rooms a block from the Capitol at the Concourse, the only unionized hotel in Madison. Volunteers piled into the offices of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union. Over the next two days, they called all 98,000 of WEAC’s members. That weekend, SEIU members hit the phones and Facebook to contact members and to pull together a rally on the following Tuesday.
Soon the hallways of the University of Wisconsin hospital were buzzing about the bill and the rally. Tim Swanson, an SEIU member and resident nurse in the hospital’s neuroscience intensive care unit, says coworkers started coming up to him and grilling him about Walker’s bill. At first, he says, organizing union members at the hospital was a challenge, “like dragging people out there to be active.” But as their anger mounted, people didn’t need any nudging. “Thank you, Scott Walker, for showing us what we need to do,” Swanson says with a half-laugh. “That we need to get off our duffs and fight for our futures and our children’s futures.”

Wisconsin labor leaders learned that Governor Walker said he would call out the National Guard in the event of labor “unrest” over the measure. AFL-CIO Secretary treasurer Bloomingdale ordered her staff to “blast it out” and work up some national coverage of the effort to crush unions in Wisconsin. Next, as Kroll reports:

They were focused on turning out protesters to march outside the Capitol on Tuesday, when the state Senate finance committee would hold a hearing on Walker’s bill. The rallies drew 10,000 people, an impressive turnout given the short notice. Marching on a surprisingly warm day, protestors chanted “Union busting has got to go!”, while inside the rotunda, they booed loudly when Republican lawmakers offered support for the bill.
That evening, as the Wisconsin State Journal reported, 120 members of Madison Teachers Inc., the local teachers union, filed into the Madison Labor Temple. MTI’s leadership explained how the bill would hurt public school teachers, eating away at their pensions and health care benefits. According to MTI’s calculations, teachers would lose more than $5,100 a year each under Walker’s bill, and they could be fired without cause. By the end of the meeting, the decision was unanimous: For the next three days, those in attendance would go to the Capitol–not the classroom–to oppose the proposed cuts. The next day, more than a thousand teachers took to the streets, forcing the Madison School District to close its schools for the rest of the week.
The rallies only grew in size during the week after Walker’s announcement, as rank-and-file union members, teachers, and students were joined by people from all walks of life. Another 10,000 people marched at the Capitol on Wednesday, February 16, followed by 25,000 on Thursday and another 25,000 on Friday. On Saturday, nearly 70,000 pro-labor protesters clogged the streets surrounding the Capitol. There were Walker supporters in the crowd, too, but contrary to what Fox or CNN reported, they were vastly outnumbered.

The spirits of the protesters soared. But they soon experienced an even greater lift, when,

But what heartened labor officials wasn’t just the turnout but the coalition of unions–public and private–they cobbled together on such short notice. They scored a major victory when the unions exempted from Walker’s proposed bargaining ban–the firefighters and police officers–decided to join the cause anyway. When the firefighters arrived on the streets of Madison that first week with their signs and fire helmets, one official with AFSCME compared it to the second Lord of the Rings, when the riders of Rohan come to the rescue of the good guys at the climactic Battle of Helm’s Deep.

Kroll tells the dramatic story of how a demonstration of teaching assistants expanded beyong their expectations:

On Monday, February 14, more than 1,000 teaching assistants and their supporters arrived at Walker’s home in Milwaukee and at his office in the Capitol to deliver cards with a Valentine’s Day message: “We Heart UW: Governor Walker, Don’t Break My Heart.”
The demonstration, organized by the Teaching Assistants’ Association, UW-Madison’s union for teachers and graduate student project assistants, inadvertently sparked a weeks-long occupation of the Capitol. The state senate finance committee that was scheduled to hear public testimony on Walker’s bill the following day had set no limit on the speakers’ list. The TAA saw an opening.
The union quickly packed the speakers’ list with thousands of people. With a few state legislators present, the hearings went on deep into the night and didn’t stop, as speaker after speaker waited for their turn at the microphone. “Given that there was a large amount of people that wanted to speak, we decided to stay a night and it turned from waiting our turn to speak into an occupation,” Alex Hanna, TAA’s co-president, told The Atlantic.
The TAA later took over a third-floor office inside the Capitol and fashioned it into a command center. From there it blasted out emails, Facebook updates, tweets, and text messages; called supporters; and ordered food for those camped out in the Capitol. The union helped launch DefendWisconsin.org, an information and organizing hub that featured everything from talking points to press releases to videos. (So effective was the site that the Walker administration blocked access to the site on the Capitol’s open wireless network, according to attorneys for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.)

Kroll notes the Democratic legislators flight and Walker’s revealing phone conversation with the fake “Koch” brother, and concludes:

Whether the unions’ round-the-clock organizing and protesting will stop Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans remains to be seen. A complete victory is all but impossible considering that they have already agreed to negotiate cuts to wages and benefits. But the past few weeks have been a test of organized labor’s ability to still flex its muscles in the face of powerful opposition, and that has left some supporters feeling a new sense of purpose. “Everyone has their turf,” says Diane Palmer, the state chapter president of the SEIU. “But this fight has united labor. We sit in one room, at one table, on one accord.”

The Wisconsin protesters may not win their objective in the short term. But it appears Walker has awakened a sleeping giant that could end up doing the GOP major damage in the not too distant future. If that fighting spirit that awakened in Madison can be sustained and nurtured, as it spreads to other states, 2012 could mark a major turning point in American politics — as the year that millions of American workers got crystal clear about which party defends their interests.

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