By **Anne McClintock**
I teach at UW-Madison, and have spent the better part of the last twelve days documenting the ongoing, mass protests at Wisconsin’s state Capitol in Madison.
For Scott Walker, everything had been going better with Koch. Walker, the nondescript new Governor of Wisconsin, with scant political credentials and scant time to even dust off his new desk, skyrocketed in one tumultuous week to a political stardom so meteoric that some pundits are now touting his name for Republican presidential nominee.
One minute Walker had hung on his doorknob a sign saying: “Wisconsin is open for business,” then with lightening speed he signed a stunning 144 page Budget Repair Bill that proposed to strip all public workers of their bargaining rights, except for wages, rolling back fifty years of Wisconsin workers’ rights, and proposing draconian budget cuts of 50-75 million dollars.
But the Walker bill was not really Walker’s bill at all. Walker’s campaign for Governorship and his slashing of worker bargaining rights is the opening salvo in a nation-wide Republican assault on labor that has been long in the planning and is now quietly underway in twenty-two states.
Behind Walker’s attack on collective bargaining lies a shadowy, highly-organized campaign, funded in Wisconsin by the fabulously wealthy Charles G and David H Koch Brothers, who have extensive dirty energy and timber interests in the state, and own much of the state’s infrastructure. Through their front organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch Brothers funneled $43,000 over the course of last year into Koch’s campaign for Governor. Koch also donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn donated over $5 million dollars to Walker’s campaign, much of that going into TV ads.
Tim Phillips, President of the Koch Brother’s front group, Americans for Prosperity, said in an interview that executives had worked for a union showdown well before Walker was sworn in as Governor, in an effort to radically redefine the rhetoric and policy of labor rights.
But before Walker could say “Fighting Bob LaFollett,” a few thousand protesters, including workers, faculty, families, and students, among them myself and my students, marched up Madison’s State Street in the first of the protests that would avalanche in less than a week into massive, internationally visible rallies, drawing an estimated 100,000 people to the Capitol, making headline news around the world, inspiring supportive protests around the country and marking an epochal point in contemporary American history.
Each day, I marched with thousands and thousands of chanting, singing, dancing, drumming, peacefully defiant protesters who poured up State Street, surrounded the Capitol, and packed every corridor, stairwell and balcony of the Rotunda, the roars of the protestors lifting the roof. Schools closed and high school students marched for miles to the Capitol, to be greeted by wildly, cheering crowds. One student stood with a placard that read: “Will the National Guard teach my class?” a reference to Walker’s provocatively veiled threat to bring out the National Guard. An immense cheer rose up when it was announced that fourteen Democratic Senators, now known as the Fab Forteen, had slipped out of the Capitol and across state lines, preventing a quorum and stalling Walker’s bill in the Senate.
The unions have agreed to fiscal concessions but Walker has steadfastly refused to negotiate the issue of collective bargaining. As the President of AFSCME, put it, Walker is not only refusing the come to the negotiating table, he is throwing out the negotiating table itself.
A war Veteran in a wheelchair, when I asked if I could take his photograph, smiled and struggled slowly to his feet. “I prefer to be photographed standing,” he said.
The Tea Party announced they were coming to town (provocateurs riding camels and horses, some quipped) and the mainstream media also arrived. Supportive speakers came, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who I happened upon in the crowd lifting delighted children into his arms. Under a chilly, white moon, I chanted with families, workers and students, as Ed Shultz of MSNBC’s Ed Show aroused a jubilant crowd, and journalist John Nichols roared: “An injury to one, is an injury to all.” By night, I wandered the Rotunda, where students and supporters slept packed together on yoga mats and airbeds on the Capitol’s marble floors, under huge banners that read “Solidarity from Texas” and posters “From Egypt to Wisconsin.”
In a particularly moving gesture of international solidarity with the protestors, people from fifty states in the U.S. and from many countries internationally, among them Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Canada, have placed long-distance orders for pizza for the Madison protestors with Ian’s Pizza, a small but now globally renowned pizza place that has been feeding the protestors.
The inspirational spirit and symbols of Egypt’s Tahrir Square suffused the rallies. Egyptian flags and signs saying “Walker like an Egyptian” and “From Egypt to Wisconsin dotted the crowds.
For many people I spoke to, and as the speakers addressing the rallies made clear, Walker had not only threatened hard-working, hard-pressed, ordinary folks’ livelihoods, their future security, their hopes of sending their children to college, he had, above all, insulted their dignity and basic rights as workers. Many posters read: “It’s not about the money.” One working man held a sign: “I am not dispensable. I am professional.”
An extraordinary sense of inspired solidarity has suffused the rallies. Signs read: “Cops for labor” and “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Members of the Firefighters Union came out in support of the rallies, as did many of the police, and some of the Green Bay Packers.
The protests have touched a deep sense of basic dignity and self-worth. A war veteran in a wheelchair, when I asked if I could take his photograph, smiled and struggled slowly to his feet. “I prefer to be photographed standing,” he said. And he made a peace-sign and held up a placard that read: “Never give up.”
Today as I write it is Sunday, February 27th. Scott Walker has released a statement saying they will be clearing the Capitol by 4 pm. I spoke to Lenora Hansen, one of the students from the TAA, which organized the sit-in. She tells me they are planning to walk out of the Rotunda peacefully, hands on their heads, but will continue the protests. The Fab Forteen are still out of the state. Thousands and thousands of people surround the Capitol every day. Governors in other states are quietly backing away from the idea of attacking collective bargaining.
Scott Walker has ignited a nation-wide labor rights movement that is not going to go away soon.
This is Wisconsin, where a spirit of egalitarian fairness, common decency, working dignity, and self-respect holds strong, and where a history of powerful labor roots runs very, very deep.
One unforgettable image stays with me. At the end of a long day of protesting, a woman, tired but smiling, leaned against a pillar in the Rotunda and held up her poster for me to photograph: “Oh Oh Scott, you have awakened a sleeping tiger.”
Copyright 2011 Anne McClintock
Anne McClintock is the Simone de Beauvoir Professor of English and Gender Studies,