Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker declared war on teachers and other public sector workers on Friday, Feb. 11. Most of us activists knew when the Republicans swept both chambers of the state Legislature and the governorship that things would get bad, but few dreamt they’d get this bad, this fast.
Walker claimed his “budget repair” bill was needed to fill a $137 million shortfall in the state budget, and blamed the crisis on excessive pension and health insurance benefits for public employees. His solution: a frontal attack on the right to organize. His 144-page bill bans all unions in the state university system, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hospital, and among state childcare workers. It essentially eliminates collective bargaining rights for all other public sector unions, requires that unions have recertification votes annually, and prohibits collecting union dues through payroll deduction. Within 30 minutes of Walker’s announcement, the right-wing Club for Growth aired TV commercials in Wisconsin’s major media markets. The message: Public employees are the “haves” and others in the state are the “have-nots.”
Hours after Walker proposed his anti-worker plan he placed the Wisconsin National Guard on alert. He also asked the Republican-controlled Senate and Assembly to pass his proposal immediately. The legislative leaders, who a week before had approved $117 million worth of business tax breaks, put Walker’s proposals on the fast track.
But a funny thing happened on the way to passing the bill.
First, there was just a small picket line.
Then, demonstrations on Tuesday, Feb. 15, at the Capitol and the governor’s home inspired the 4,000-member Madison teachers’ union to shut down schools and turn out to protest the next day. That evening, Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, put out a call for “our members and all citizens of Wisconsin to come to Madison both Thursday and Friday to go to the Capitol for peaceful demonstrations.”
So many Wisconsin teachers called in sick on Thursday, we shut down 24 school districts.
In a stunning gesture, the 14 Democratic state senators fled Wisconsin, depriving the Senate of a quorum and bringing deliberations to a halt.
By Friday, teachers had forced the school districts to shut down in Milwaukee, Racine, Wausau, and Janesville. And 20,000 people poured into Madison.
On Saturday, Feb. 19, an estimated 35,000 people gathered at the Capitol and protests spread to dozens of communities across the state. Although most teachers went back to work the following week, tens of thousands of other workers and their families came out to protest.
Capping a second solid week of demonstrations, an estimated 100,000 protesters gathered in Madison—the biggest demonstration in the state’s history.
The attacks on Wisconsin teachers and other public employees are part of a national agenda to privatize public institutions and destroy public sector unions, the most robust part of a declining labor movement. Governors in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and elsewhere are watching Wisconsin closely.
But the governor has awakened a sleeping giant: We’ve been joined by ironworkers, firefighters, nurses, postal workers, retired public employees, private sector unions, hundreds of local elected officials, religious organizations, the NAACP, Voces de la Frontera, and other parent and civic groups.
As we go to press, the mobilizations continue. It’s too early to say how this will end, but we wanted to give you a sense of what it has felt like to be part of this extraordinary movement. On these pages are photos and reflections by Rethinking Schools editors and friends.
As a 1st-grade Milwaukee teacher, I have had little sleep since Gov. Scott Walker announced his budget repair bill two weeks ago. That first Monday, I went to work as usual and talked with teacher friends about possibly going to Madison later in the week. The one-sided media reporting and increasing anger among teachers helped me make up my mind. I returned to work on Tuesday and told my teaching partner that I’d be taking a personal day on Wednesday to fight for our rights in Madison. She said: “You go and fight, and you do it for as long as necessary.”
At Capitol Square in Madison on Wednesday, we were greeted by an impassioned crowd chanting in support of collective bargaining rights, public schools, health care for poor families, and services for the elderly. The crowd inside the Capitol was as passionate and loud as those outside.
Back in Milwaukee, the superintendent posted an aggressive message to teachers: “Act in good conscience, consider our needy children—many of whom are living in poverty—and report to our classrooms throughout the week as the debate continues in Madison.” The media tried to color teachers as selfish, careless, and unprofessional. I knew I was acting in the best interests of public education, but I feared that we might lose our parents as allies. Early Friday morning, one of my parents texted me: “There’s no school today. Good for you and good luck in Madison.” What a relief! I went off to Madison to fight for her son.
Last month teachers in Wisconsin were feeling beaten down. Policies like Race to the Top, merit pay, and over-testing had made us feel inadequate and robotic. Projected budget shortfalls left us scrambling to make ends meet. Scripted curricula threatened our professionalism, our creativity, and the joy in teaching and learning.
Two weeks ago all this changed, and we have Gov. Walker to thank for it. The “union thugs” that you see on FOX News? Many of them are teachers. In Milwaukee, the state’s largest and poorest district, more than 1,000 teachers called in absent and went to Madison to protest on Feb. 18. As teacher Michele Hilbert put it: “I am teaching today. This is what democracy looks like.” Teachers around the state have found a voice for ourselves within the craziness: This isn’t about money, or benefits, or pensions. This is about rights, and how those rights affect the future of our students.
—Melissa Bollow Tempel
On the morning of the largest rally in Wisconsin history, my daughter woke me up by saying, “Mommy, you look like an exhausted Cinderella.” Her comment captured the dual nature of our struggle in Wisconsin: incredibly inspiring yet terribly demoralizing.
And yes, exhausting. The state teachers’ union called on 98,000 Wisconsin teachers to leave the classroom and attend the rallies in Madison. And by the thousands, we did. The following week, after a four-day weekend of protesting in Madison, we returned to school, teaching by day and demonstrating in the evenings.
We continue to do our jobs and teach our students. We continue to fight against the deterioration of teaching and learning conditions in our classrooms. And we continue to protest Walker’s awful attempt to destroy our rights without debate.
Even without Walker’s budget cuts and bullying, our schools are facing some of the worst cuts I’ve seen in my 12 years of teaching. My school, like many schools in Milwaukee, will likely have no art, music, physical education, or library next year; class sizes in kindergarten through 3rd grade will double.
Our movement grows each day. As parents realize the extent of plans to slash public education, we expect even more people to join us. As Jesse Jackson told the protesters in Madison, “When we fight, we win.” This is a fight we must win.
—Kelley Dawson Salas
For 20 years in the classroom, I taught students that they must stand up for their rights. My students joined anti-Klan rallies, immigration rights marches, and picket lines. They did door-to-door voter registration and attended countless forums sothey would understand what it takes to make democracy work. Now, as a school board member, I encourage all teachers to teach democracy.
This is an uprising and our students need to know they have a role to play.
How do I know this is an uprising?
This is an uprising because you see high school students leave the building at lunch to carry signs supporting their teachers, then go in for their next class.
This is an uprising because the driver of a pickup with a bumper sticker that says “Don’t mess with my second amendment rights” sees your “Stop Scott Walker” sign and gives you a thumbs up.
This is an uprising because you march for an hour amidst tens of thousands around the Capitol and don’t see anyone you know.
The past two weeks have been filled with great excitement! I have been called “Sister” by folks with whom I share little in common, except one big thing—union membership. I saw the number of protesters swell every single day for a week. I have been moved to tears by students who marched out of school to protest side by side with their teachers. I have chanted and cheered until I was hoarse. I led 100,000 people in what has become our rallying cry: This is what democracy looks like!
These past 14 days have also been dark at times. What will happen to our public schools and public services? When did working for government become a crime? When did working for a union make me a thug? What will happen to our schools, our neighborhoods, our state, should we not prevail in our fight to preserve collective bargaining?
But I generally don’t have the luxury of hand-wringing and worry because there is so much organizing to do. We must continue the fight to preserve workers’ rights because, quite simply, our neighborhoods, our schools, and our democracy depend on it.
Justice Is in the Air
Leia Petty , a public school counselor in New York City, describes her experience in Madison. A version of this article appeared originally in Socialist Worker.
Breathe deep, Wisconsin. Justice is in the air!” This is part of a statement written by an Egyptian activist that is read into the “people’s mic” inside the Capitol building in Madison. There is a lot in the air in Wisconsin: justice, solidarity, struggle, dignity, determination, generosity. You see it and breathe it everywhere.
When I first set foot in the Capitol the last weekend in February, I am overwhelmed. There isn’t a wall that isn’t plastered with homemade signs and union placards. The most inspiring is a huge piece of butcher paper: “In the event of a general strike, I vow to support workers”—with hundreds of names signed to it.
It is immediately clear to me that the Capitol has been completely taken over, physically as well as politically. Those who have been occupying the building for two weeks have self-organized a fully functioning 24-hour daycare center, medic station, charging station, food distribution center, lost and found, and “free stores” with donated diapers, sleeping bags, socks, and other basic needs. There is an information station and protest marshals who try to remain up to speed on the latest developments and assist newcomers. Town halls are organized both nights I am there.
At the people’s mic, someone says: “As an African American woman, I don’t feel safe out there. But I feel safe here. The Capitol building has become the safest place in this country.” People leave bags unattended for hours, plug their phones into charging stations and walk away.
Every service provided by the occupation is deemed “equal opportunity.” This means that homeless people sleep in the Capitol and get free food. There is no reason why they should have to return to the freezing cold streets of Madison. It is their “house,” too.
Political conversations are happening everywhere: every street corner, every restaurant, at the charging station, during cigarette breaks. No one feels like a stranger, and you talk to whoever is sitting or standing next to you. It is just understood that everyone you interact with is on your side. And that a line has been drawn in the sand: It is our side vs. the Walkers and Koch brothers of the world.
At one point, a member of AFSCME from Iowa is standing next to me wearing a button that says “Fund jobs, not wars.” He is an older worker, with white hair and a raspy voice. He says he has tried to form a progressive group in Iowa against the war, but it is small, and he is struggling to keep it alive. He is excited to talk with someone about the war and the insanity of the Pentagon budget.
When I see a sign that says “Outside Agitators Welcome,” I decide that I want a turn on the people’s mic. I help lead chants as I wait in line. Then a group of firefighters on bagpipes leads the crowd in “Amazing Grace” and slowly everyone raises their fists. An older woman across from me and a young woman standing next to me begin weeping. The words, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see” have never felt so true.
I feel proud to speak into the people’s mic. Thunderous cheers follow when I say that I am a public school counselor from New York City.
We’re told every day by politicians and the media that we’re “the problem with education” in this country. It’s impossible not to internalize this message, even when you know it’s not true. But here in the Capitol, this feeling has completely left me.
The protests in Madison have brought more than 100,000 people through, and we have tasted democracy. Everyone who comes to this place, everyone who has invested in this struggle, will never be the same.