Workers, students pour out in solidarity — Protests across U.S. support union struggle in Wisconsin

A mighty giant is beginning to awaken. The fighting workers and youth of Wisconsin, who are battling a right-wing offensive seeking to decimate collective bargaining in that state, have inspired and put in motion the multinational working class throughout the entire United States. Workers in unions, in non-union jobs and unemployed, along with students, youth and activists of all ages, have been galvanized by the electrifying struggle unfolding in Wisconsin where workers have taken a stand and said “Enough!”

Solidarity demonstrations involving many tens of thousands of people were held in all 50 states, in cities and towns large and small, on Feb. 26 and other dates since the Feb. 14 confrontation began in Madison. Here is a sampling of just a few of the demonstrations that occurred Feb. 26 and several days prior.

Thousands rallied at the Los Angeles City Hall. A delegation of Los Angeles union workers had just returned from Wisconsin and reported on staying inside the Capitol building in Madison. Thousands of union members, students and progressive community activists rallied in Sacramento, Calif., around the Bay Area and in San Diego.

More than 3,000 union members came out to a candlelight vigil on the steps of the Capitol building in Sacramento. Under the banner of “We Are One,” speaker after speaker expressed solidarity with their union sisters and brothers in Wisconsin. David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, drew loud applause when he said, “Working people did not create this economic crisis — Wall Street did!”

A small rally by the California Tea Party also on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento was dwarfed by the angry workers, who easily drowned them out with their rally for workers’ rights.

Hundreds of people rallied in downtown San Francisco. Even with a serious rainstorm threatening, a large assemblage of local unionists and supporters massed at the San Diego County Administration Building to proclaim their solidarity with their sister and brother workers on the front lines in Wisconsin.

Several thousand workers demonstrated in Chicago. At least 10 union buses also went from Chicago to Madison to join in the protests there. In New York City thousands demonstrated, including many members from Service Employees Union Local 1199 health care workers and janitors, Communication Workers union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 37 workers, and teachers’ and other educational workers’ unions, among others.

In Buffalo, N.Y., the largest grassroots, pro-union, community-organized rally in decades brought hundreds to the steps of City Hall. A militant crowd of rank-and-file union members, students, community activists and politician allies sent greetings of support to Wisconsin. Continue reading

A youth’s perspective: ‘In Madison, we see our future’

Editor’s note: The writer is a youth activist and high-school senior from Detroit who took part in a solidarity delegation to Madison, Wis., from Feb. 20-22.

When you first step into the Capitol, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the feeling of inspiration and solidarity flowing through every corridor and hall. The sight of an ocean of people stirs a hope that is unknown to some and forgotten by many. The main part of the rotunda on the first floor is filled with students who have been organizing the occupation. They have a loudspeaker which everyone gets to use.

The students have played an integral role in this struggle, forming the base for the occupation by organizing sleep-over lists, food donations, medical staff and an information center all within the Capitol itself. Posters are set up, much like a sign in the mall or a building, pointing people toward their desired location.

The second floor has booths that give out information or free literature, and a reserve of food and beverages is at the end of one of the halls. The charging station, lined with people who are blogging the struggle to every corner of the world, is located on one of the hallways, open to all who need to juice their electronic devices.

At night, the second floor is packed with sleeping bodies of the students and workers who decide to “hold down the fort” and ensure they don’t lose their footing inside the building.

People sleep, find friends or make new friends during this time, allowing a sense of community to blossom within the building. After spending a day or two there, you develop a feeling of kinship with the other people — a respect. Occupying the Capitol has allowed me to understand the feeling of camaraderie that is possible among workers and youth.

The third floor is filled with sleeping bags and groupings of people having conversations. This is a great place to meet new people and exchange ideas, as it is a place to get away from the loud chanting and wonderful music and have talks. It also provides a magical view of the entire rotunda — only here are you allowed to see the entire size of the protest.

The diversity of the ongoing event is also quite incredible. Various groups of unions, students, activists and pro-worker organizations have traveled to Madison to show solidarity with the people of Wisconsin who are fighting the union-busting policies of the new right-wing regime. People from California to New York, Texas to North Dakota all have come to support the occupation.

This is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring aspects of the event. Not only do we have unionized and non-unionized workers from both the public and private sectors, but workers and students from every race, creed and sexuality all standing as one.

“The people united will never be defeated!” This common chant is brought to life before our very eyes. In Madison we see our future and the future of the labor movement in the United States, and it is awe-inspiring.

Basketball players’ union supports Wisconsin workers

The following statements were issued Feb. 25 by National Basketball Players Association representatives in opposition to the passing of the anti-union “budget repair bill” by the Wisconsin Assembly on Feb 24.

“Last night’s vote by the Wisconsin Assembly was an attempt to undermine organized labor and the men and women across the country who depend on their unions for a voice in the workplace. The NBPA proudly supports our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin and their stand for unequivocal collective bargaining rights.”

— Billy Hunter, NBPA executive director

“Wisconsin public-sector workers tirelessly deliver services on a daily basis to millions of Wisconsin residents. The right of these hardworking men and women to organize and bargain collectively is fundamental. Wisconsin’s workers deserve better than last night’s vote. Today, our union stands proudly with our fellow union members throughout the state as they continue their fight.”

— Keyon Dooling, NBPA first vice president, Milwaukee Bucks

Eyewitness Wisconsin: Occupation, solidarity continue strong

Editor’s note: Sharon Black is an organizer with the National Bail Out the People Movement who has been at the State Capitol in Madison since day two of the occupation. She submitted the following report on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 26, prior to the huge demonstration of 100,000 workers that took place that afternoon in Wisconsin’s capital.

Morning, Feb. 26 — The occupation is growing stronger every day. The big news on Feb. 25 was that 150 workers or so flew in from Los Angeles. Among them are bus drivers, teachers, nurses, hotel workers, longshoremen, electricians, construction workers, costume designers, utility workers, truck drivers, letter carriers, refinery workers, grocery store clerks, college faculty, and more.

They had more people waiting who were ready to come to show solidarity with us here in Madison, with those inside and ringing the Capitol. The LA workers arrived in the Capitol area with tears in their eyes, proud and happy to be standing together with their sisters and brothers in Wisconsin.

This growing strength is important for the struggle here. We got news yesterday that the governor had ordered the police to clear the Capitol on Sunday, Feb. 27, at 4 p.m. CST. In preparation they are trying to make life miserable for those of us in the Capitol, making lots of noise, locking the doors at 9 p.m., booming the loudspeakers all night long to deny sleep, and refusing to allow people to bring in sleeping bags and other bedding. Somehow bedding got in anyway, which is good because it is really cold here in Madison.

Their pretext for clearing the building is that they have to clean the Capitol. Of course it is the workers who keep the Capitol clean — we don’t expect that the governor and the Republican legislators will get out their brooms and mops and vacuum cleaners, and as of yet we haven’t heard this is being assigned to the National Guard.

Last night hundreds of people slept in at the Capitol. Many of us are determined to stick it out until the end. What is an interesting development is that there were even some police who slept in here with their fellow public employees, giving evidence of a surprising split within an arm of the state. It is likely to be the police who are called upon to eject those participating in the occupation.

On Feb. 25 the Assembly was finally able to vote — after heroic delaying tactics by thousands of witnesses from the workers here and a sort of filibuster by many of the Democratic legislators — on Walker’s union-attack bill disguised as a budget measure. Of course the Republican majority passed the bill, which is still being delayed in the State Senate because 14 Democratic senators have slipped away to Illinois to prevent a legal vote from taking place. If they return, the bill will pass unless a few of the Republicans switch sides. Continue reading

Message from Cairo to Madison

Some of the Egyptians who participated in the uprising there have been supportive of the workers’ struggle in Madison, Wis., as can be seen in the photo here. Other have donated funds to buy pizzas in Madison and have them sent to the workers and students at the state Capitol.

Another example comes from CTUWS, an umbrella advocacy organization for independent unions in Egypt. The CTUWS suffered repeated harassment and attacks by the Mubarak regime and played a role in its overthrow. Kamal Abbas is general coordinator of the CTUWS and had been arrested and threatened numerous times by the Mubarak dictatorship.

In a message to the people occupying the Capitol, Abbas said: “I speak to you from a place close to Tahrir Square in Cairo, heart of the Revolution in Egypt. Here in ‘Liberation Square’ many of our youth paid with their lives and blood in the struggle for our just rights.

“We stand with you as you stood with us. No power can challenge the will of people who believe in their rights, raise their voices loud and clear, and struggle against exploitation.

“No one believed our revolution could succeed against the strongest dictatorship in the region. Yet in 18 days the revolution achieved the victory of the people. When the working class of Egypt joined the revolution on Feb. 9, the dictatorship was doomed and victory became inevitable.

“Victory always belongs to the people who stand firm and demand their just rights. Don’t waiver. Don’t give up on your rights. We and all the people of the world stand on your side and give you our full support. As our just struggle for freedom, democracy and justice succeeded, your struggle will succeed.

“Today is the day of the American workers. We salute you! Victory belongs to all the people of the world, who are fighting against exploitation, and for their just rights.” Abbas saluted other peoples in the North African and West Asian region fighting to remove their rulers.

Packers athletes: ‘Public workers are Wisconsin’s champions’

The heroic worker and student takeover of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, which is entering its second week, has evoked solidarity throughout many sectors of U.S. society; athletes are no exception. The Green Bay Packers, the only publicly owned team in the National Football Association and winners of Super Bowl XLV, are based in the working-class city of Green Bay, Wis. Past and present Packer members — Curtis Fuller, Chris Jackie, Charles Jordan, Bob Long, Steve Okoniewski, Brady Poppinga and Jason Spitz — issued the following solidarity statement on Feb. 15, the second day of the Wisconsin Capitol takeover.

Football union supports Wisconsin workers

Following statement was issued on Feb. 15.

The NFL Players Association will always support efforts protecting a worker’s right to join a union and collectively bargain. Today, the NFLPA stands in solidarity with its organized labor brothers and sisters in Wisconsin.

We know that it is teamwork on and off the field that makes the Packers and Wisconsin great. As a publicly-owned team we wouldn’t have been able to win the Super Bowl without the support of our fans.

It is the same dedication of our public workers every day that makes Wisconsin run. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. But now in an unprecedented political attack Governor Walker is trying to take away their right to have a voice and bargain at work.

The right to negotiate wages and benefits is a fundamental underpinning of our middle class. When workers join together it serves as a check on corporate power and helps ALL workers by raising community standards. Wisconsin’s long standing tradition of allowing public sector workers to have a voice on the job has worked for the state since the 1930s. It has created greater consistency in the relationship between labor and management and a shared approach to public work.

These public workers are Wisconsin’s champions every single day and we urge the Governor and the State Legislature to not take away their rights.

From a youth organizer in Madison: ‘Solidarity of workers and students cannot be broken’

Feb. 21 — Inside the state Capitol building in Madison, Wis., the halls normally filled with politicians and corporate lobbyists are now occupied by thousands of people. Banners and posters with messages of solidarity and slogans denouncing Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on the public sector hang from every wall.

Chants of “power to the people” and drumming fill the building from the early hours of the morning until late at night. The energy in the building is absolutely electric and all who are participating in the occupation and mass demonstrations are determined to carry the struggle forward until the anti-union bill is defeated.

Young people and students are playing a decisive role in the historic struggle that is developing in Wisconsin. The occupation — which is entering its second week now — has been led by young workers, high school students, undergraduates and the graduate student unions.

Students have developed food distribution centers, information points, medical teams and infrastructure. A people’s assembly was held to make collective decisions about how to keep and build the people’s control of the capitol building. The struggle has been a tremendous teacher, in helping to shape and guide the development of the occupation.

Every day that the struggle moves forward, more and more young people are flooding Madison to stand with workers against the right wing’s attack on the public sector. This struggle has lit a fire in the hearts and minds of young people and awakened a spirit of resistance. So many young people that filled the halls of the Capitol, or have been marching in the streets shoulder to shoulder with workers, have remarked how this type of militant action has been long overdue and that they are determined to keep fighting until these right-wing attacks are defeated.

Solidarity of workers and students cannot be broken

Tens of thousands of students from all over Wisconsin, and indeed from all over the Midwest, have mobilized to participate in the many rallies and demonstrations that have been organized during the past week to help hold the occupation at the Capitol building. High school students in Madison organized walkouts and miles-long marches from their high schools to join their teachers down at the Capitol. Student organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society, Student Labor Action Coalition, Voces de la Frontera and the United Council, among others, have been helping to mobilize students to the Capitol and build solidarity for public sector workers. They’ve organized walkouts at a number of University of Wisconsin campuses, including more than 3,000 students at UW-Madison, organized by SDS. The graduate student unions maintain an organizing center in the Capitol building that runs around the clock, and student organizations help to staff and organize out of it. Students also helped to lead a demonstration against the Tea Party on Feb. 19 that drew out 100,000 trade unionists and students.

On a day this writer spent doing outreach at UW-Madison’s campus, there was near universal support for the workers and students fighting back against these attacks. Almost everyone we spoke with had been participating in the ongoing demonstrations and declared their intentions to return. In an instant, this struggle has opened up the political consciousness of so many young people and has given life to an urgency to fight back. Continue reading

After week one of Wisconsin Capitol takeover: ‘We can’t lose collective bargaining’

Feb. 19 – The people’s liberation of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., is in full swing.

“Now is the time. We can’t let this die because we are at ground zero and what happens here affects the rest of the world. We have to be strong. A united front,” said Mahlon Mitchell of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin at the massive afternoon rally at the state Capitol Feb. 19. Mitchell became the first African-American president of the PFW on Jan. 12.

On Feb. 19 the biggest demonstration yet, with an estimated crowd of 100,000, filled the grounds outside the state Capitol and continued the sit-in. A massive roving picket line with all sectors of the working class — union and non-union workers, the unemployed, students, people of color, immigrants, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer community — marched on the streets for the entire day accompanied by drumming, chanting, dancing and singing.

The Tea Party hosted a counter-rally of about 2,000 on the Capitol steps in the early afternoon protected by more than 500 fully armed cops with riot gear. Tea Party members were bused in and left quickly after their rally. They were directly confronted by students and workers from such organizations as Students for a Democratic Society, Fight Imperialism, Stand Together, Bail Out the People Movement, Veterans for Peace, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, Workers World Party and others with chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, racist Tea Party has to go,” “Hands off workers: Make the banks pay,” and “Kill the Bill.”

The racist, anti-worker Tea Party crowd was entirely surrounded by those opposing Walker’s bill, which is an attack on the entire working class and oppressed internationally by the banks, corporations and the Pentagon. Some workers even waded into the Tea Party crowd and shouted at the main speakers.

John Carey, a member of Veterans for Peace from the Clarence Kailin Chapter 25 Madison, told this writer, “We feel we have a purpose here because the economy is being affected by the war or should I say the wars. We oppose war as being a way of settling differences between nations, so we fit into this activity because our economy is being destroyed by the war and that is affecting the unions and working people. I think that if the administration is incapable of coming to a reasonable decision, namely not to destroy collective bargaining, then the unions should force regaining and maintaining their collective bargaining. They have a right to that and it can never be taken away.”

Widespread union, student participation

As has happened during the entire week, the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, American Federation of Teacher-Wisconsin, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and other unions bused in thousands of members from across the state and beyond. Delegations of union members, students and other community members came from across the country and other locations such as Toronto, Ont.

Emergency national demonstrations by the Bail Out the People Movement began Feb.18 at the Stock Exchange on Wall Street and continued nationwide. Solidarity demonstrations across the world began on Feb. 18 and continued on Feb.19. Both will continue until the anti-worker Walker bill is killed entirely.

Walker and legislators for the so-called “budget repair bill” have been flooded with emails, phone calls and tweets. Thousands of union and non-union members and students have visited legislators’ offices. Virtually all the major unions have frequent updates on their websites. Facebook is ablaze with up-to-the-minute messages. Twitter updates are constant. Demonstrators utilize numerous other communication strategies, including a live stream from inside the Capitol.

During the past week union members and their allies picketed Walker’s and other right-wing racist politicians’ homes, held protests throughout the state, sponsored candlelight vigils and more. These and many other actions are ongoing.

Lynne Pfeifer, an AFSCME Local 1288 member who has worked at the Manitowoc County Health and Rehabilitation Center for over 30 years, told this writer: “We can’t have it. We can’t lose collective bargaining. The rally at the state Capitol was fabulous. There were people all over, on the lawn, on the sidewalks, around the Capitol, all different ages. I got into the Capitol and that was another display. If those legislators didn’t hear what they ought to do, they’re not paying attention. They have to make some change. They have to do something different.”

On Feb. 18, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke at a major noon-time rally and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. spoke at an evening rally on the Capitol steps. Both speakers stood before thousands of poor and working people expressing their solidarity and pledging to assist in any way to make killing Walker’s bill a reality. Reverend Jackson also put forward a people’s program demanding a moratorium on foreclosures, relief for student loan debt, and a federal jobs program among other issues, and pledged solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer community. Continue reading

Class struggle — a Wisconsin tradition

People around the world, from California to Cairo, are supporting Wisconsin’s workers, who’ve seized their state Capitol building to fight union busting. But this wasn’t the first time people seized the Capitol in Madison.

On Sept. 29, 1969, Milwaukee mothers receiving public assistance, led by Father Jim Groppi and supported by 5,000 University of Wisconsin students, took over the Capitol. They held it for 11 hours and chased out the state legislators.

This was a struggle against welfare cuts. Racist politicians wanted to cut out the winter clothing allowance so that poor people would be driven out of the state or freeze to death.

Among the state assembly members chased out was future governor, Tommy Thompson, who took his revenge on poor people by abolishing welfare in the 1990s. Thompson and a majority of the state assembly had Groppi convicted of contempt and sentenced to jail without even allowing a legal defense. The U.S. Supreme Court later threw out Groppi’s conviction.

Activists are proud that Wisconsin enacted the first workers compensation law a century ago. The state also passed the first unemployment insurance act in the 1930s.

But as Lloyd Barbee, who led the state’s Civil Rights movement, said, “Wisconsin was progressive just for white people.” Barbee, who died in 2002, was one of the assembly members who supported the mothers on public assistance in 1969.

Four percent of Black people in prison

One out of every twenty-five African Americans in Wisconsin is incarcerated. That’s four percent of all Black people in the state, from the infant in the incubator to the elder trying to blow out a hundred candles on a birthday cake.

Twelve thousand African Americans are in Wisconsin prisons. Back in 1963, the state had fewer than 3,000 prisoners. The great migration of African Americans didn’t really reach Wisconsin until the 1950s. Even today just six percent of the state’s population is Black. Four percent are Latina/o.

Yet factory after factory in Milwaukee and Racine, Wis., had large numbers of Black workers. Thousands of African Americans were employed in Milwaukee’s A.O. Smith plant, which made car frames for General Motors.

Mexican workers filled the meatpacking plants in Milwaukee’s Menominee River valley.

Four people were killed in the 1967 rebellion of Milwaukee’s Black community. Only the much larger Detroit and Newark uprisings that year had more casualties.

Even before this revolt, Milwaukee was convulsed by daily demonstrations of the NAACP Youth Council, led by Father Groppi, demanding a law against housing discrimination. Every year, Vel Phillips—the first African American and first woman elected to the Milwaukee City Council—would introduce a fair housing law, only to have it voted down 18-1. Lloyd Barbee helped organize the 1965 boycott of the city’s segregated school system.

Twenty-five thousand people marched down Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee following Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. This march amounted to a Black general strike with close to one-fourth of the African Americans in the city participating in it. This writer remembers the riot police, armed with tear gas launchers, preventing people from crossing the Milwaukee River to the East Side, where the city’s financial district is located.

During this period the Milwaukee chapter of the Black Panther Party grew rapidly. High school students were especially attracted to the Panthers. “The “Milwaukee Three” — Panther members Booker T. Collins Jr., Jesse Lee White and Earl W. Leverette — were framed up.

Because of the relatively small size of Wisconsin’s Black community, the ruling class has used the state as a laboratory for reaction. Social services have been cut to the bone. Milwaukee is filled with charter schools.

It was deindustrialization in Milwaukee that allowed capitalists to attack all workers. Plants like A.O. Smith and American Motors were torn down. White and African-American workers were thrown out of union strongholds in Milwaukee, but the Black working class was hurt much more. The result was a big weakening of the labor movement.

Plant shutdowns across Wisconsin have continued with the General Motors plant in Janesville now closed. Continue reading

Tens of thousands liberate state Capitol in Madison to oppose anti-worker legislation

Feb. 16 — Since Feb. 14, tens of thousands of students, workers and other community members have liberated the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget repair” bill, which would eliminate collective bargaining rights for 175,000 public sector union workers statewide.

Gilbert Johnson, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 82 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told this reporter: “We’re repulsed by the efforts of the current administration to strip us of our rights and dignity. The increasing protests statewide, and especially at the state Capitol, are exactly what’s needed to kill Gov. Walker’s bill, which is a union-busting and anti-worker attack. The resistance by the people of Wisconsin is inspiring and instilling hope in poor and working people all over the country. We need a constant stream of people going to the Capitol to stop this bill and for all to come out to the emergency rally Thursday.”

As of this writing, Walker’s budget bill is in the Joint Finance Committee, while hundreds of students and others are camping overnight inside the Capitol. A people’s filibuster took place for more than 20 hours Feb. 15-16. On one occasion in the late evening of Feb. 15, when the committee attempted to shut down public comment, hundreds of angry protesters led by students chanted “We will speak” and “Let us in.” They won more time — public comments continued until 2:30 a.m.

If the committee approves Walker’s bill, it goes to the Senate, where it is expected to be passed, and then on to the Assembly. The bill could come before the Senate as early as tomorrow. Those protesting have pledged the Senate and Assembly will be faced with mass resistance of various kinds if they attempt to pass the bill.

Both yesterday and today, hundreds of buses traveled to Madison from all across the state for noon rallies at the Capitol. The thousands who traveled to Madison occupied the Capitol building both days, taking over all four floors, encircling the Capitol in moving pickets and holding candlelight vigils. Inside, thousands more lobbied legislators, joined protests and drumming circles and sang. The Wisconsin AFL-CIO says that 20,000 descended on the Capitol Feb. 15 and 50,000 today. On Feb. 17 union and student organizers expect even bigger crowds to come from across Wisconsin and beyond.

Today all the K-12 teachers and students in Madison walked out and joined in solidarity at the Capitol. There have also been “teach-outs” at UW-Madison. Delegations of firefighters also joined the protests yesterday and today in a notable act of poignant solidarity, as they are exempt from the dire effects of Walker’s bill. They received an electric response from the crowds, as have the youth and students, who are playing a critical role in numerous areas.

The week started with pickets at legislators’ homes Feb. 13. The next day simultaneous protest actions as the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association-American Federation of Teachers at UW-Milwaukee sponsored a rally and the Teaching Assistants Association-AFT at UW-Madison rallied on campus and then marched to the Capitol. Continue reading