With two rallies on Valentine's Day, students and teachers commemorated the first anniversary of Wisconsin's historic struggle against Governor Scott Walker's attack on the state's 50-year tradition of peaceful collective bargaining.
Walker introduced his proposal to end collective bargaining for most state workers on Feb. 11, 2011. On Feb. 14, 2011 the Teacher's Assistants Association, the graduate student union at UW-Madison, organized a march from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus to the Wisconsin State Capitol to deliver thousands of Valentine's to Walker to protest the measure and planned cuts to the UW system.
The Valentines read: "We ♥ UW, please don't break our ♥." The next day, thousands of workers hit the streets as Madison Teacher's Inc. launched a walkout and the mass protests began.
UW students felt it was time for a reprise. Since last year's Valentine's Day march, the UW System has been forced to swallow unprecedented cuts in state aid, over $250 million. An additional $67 million in cuts are on the docket of the Joint Finance Committee on February 15, and are likely to pass.
Hundreds March from Campus to Capitol
The festive march started at 12:30 pm with hundreds of people and grew as it approached the capitol building. Mark Pocan, a Democratic Assemblyman from Madison, who is now running for Congress, was present because: "It's exciting. One year later, the energy is still here -- the energy to make change." Leading the march were members of the TAA and members of the Student Labor Action Coalition, two groups integral to the planning of last year's occupation of the capitol. They began with chants of "they say cut back, we say fight back" as the Forward Marching Band played union songs such as "Which side are you on?"
The marchers entered the capitol to join the daily "Solidarity Sing-Along." The Sing-Along ended with a slightly altered version of the UW badgers fight song, "On, Wisconsin!" The exclamatory "u-rah-rah!" was replaced with "o-hi-o!" to honor visiting labor activists who overturned a law to restrict collective bargaining rights in Ohio.
Speakers Address Demands of Students and Workers
After the Sing-Along speakers addressed the crowd from the middle of the rotunda before heading to the governor's office to deliver new Valentines addressing their concerns. Leland Pan, a UW student and member of the Student Labor Action Coalition, talked about threats to higher education. He elicited loud applause when asserting, "higher education is a right and it should be free!" Pan connected the struggles of students and workers by pointing out that 10,000 UW students are also workers and that they "deserve a living wage and a union."
Jeremy Beloungy, a member of AFSCME Local 171, spoke to the crowd about the challenges the labor movements faces in the aftermath of Walker's attack on collective bargaining rights. To those who created and pushed the attack on collective bargaining, "we are going to act to expose and shame them," he said.
Kevin Gundlach, newly elected president of the South Central Federation of Labor, which represents private sector workers, praised the work that has been done in the past year and said people are celebrating the anniversary of when "we all woke up and we fought back."
The gathering ended with Adrienne Pagac, co-president of the TAA, who highlighted the way forward. "This anniversary does not mark an end but a beginning, we have the power to change our world."
The group of protesters made way for a couple to take wedding pictures in the rotunda. After expediting the conclusion of the event, Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs was criticized by the right-wing McIver Institute for conspiring with protesters to evade the draconian new rules that apply to protests in the capitol. The McIver Institute is fond of conspiracies, yet has failed to report on the six criminal indictments against Scott Walker's former staff and campaign contributors or the fact that Walker has been called in to testify in the corruption probe being run out of the Milwaukee District Attorney's Office. McIver is working with the Koch-led and -funded "Americans for Prosperity" group on a website and TV ads in support of Walker's policies.
Fighting for the Right to Bargain
The original Valentine's Day march was planned by the TAA in an attempt to prevent the deep cuts to education that the Walker administration was proposing. When news of Walker's collective bargaining bill broke on Feb. 11, the message of the rally was broadened to preserve the rights of the TAA and other unions on campus to collectively bargain.
Walker's collective bargaining bill made it so onerous for unions to organize (for instance by requiring a majority vote of all members to recertify the union, rather than a majority of all voting members like with ordinary elections for public office) that the TAA was the first Wisconsin union to declare that it would no longer seek official certification under the collective bargaining law. However, the forty-six year old student union still represents graduate student workers on campus and is still a leader in the fight for labor rights across the state.
Teachers Take to the Streets
At 4:00 pm teachers took center stage at the Wisconsin Capitol. "One year angrier, one year poorer," declared Nadine Reinacher's hand-crafted sign as she marched in a sometimes frustrated, sometimes festive anniversary rally on the snow-coated sidewalks and steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol.
Reinacher's salary is frozen, her health insurance has gone up, along with her share of pension contributions. But compared to thousands of other Wisconsin workers, Reinacher, an elementary school secretary, may be lucky: she still has a union contract.
After leading the state in declaring a walkout against Walker, Madison Teachers Inc., which represents more than 2,000 teachers and staff in the district, bought time against Walker's 2011 collective bargaining bill. The MTI contracts are valid until June 30, 2013—enough time at least theoretically to outlast the governor and even overturn the anti-union legislation if recall efforts are successful.
One year after the battle for working families began in the state, a half dozen speakers—and a band aptly named the "Learning Curve"—addressed a sea of Valentine's hearts, from "We ♥ our Teachers" signs to mylar balloons, which have become a symbol of the fight.
MTI president Peggy Coyne, a special education teacher, told her rank-and-file that Walker evidently had not attended the "teach peace" classes that were available in Wisconsin schools, but instead decided to "drop a bomb" on public sector unions. "But you spoke up," she told a cheering crowd. "You waited all night to testify at hearings. You called, tweeted, and Facebooked." She added that "The students you teach showed that they had learned their lessons on democracy and they raised their voices along with yours."
When Republicans sought to push through Walker's union busting collective bargaining bill in a matter of days in February 2011, Madison teachers and university students created a de facto general strike, with whole families attending hearings and sleeping over in the capitol. When all 14 Democratic senators left the state to allow time for deliberations, the fight became a national cause célèbre and gave heart to workers around the United States facing similar battles.
ALEC and the Koch Brothers Too
Coyne, who wore her own hand-drawn hearts with "Listen to your Teachers!" on the back reminded teachers that the actions by Republicans were driven by forces well beyond Wisconsin. "We must ... speak out against the abuses of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch brothers and the hypocrisy of elected officials that want to ignore our voices," she said.
Coyne was joined by the head of Madison Firefighters Local 311 Joe Conway. Firefighters were exempt from Walker's collective bargaining bill, but decided to join the fight because as they frequently stated, "the house of labor was on fire." Also lending support was South Central Federation of Labor president Kevin Gundlach and State Representative Mark Pocan.
Conway told the crowd that "We don't want a Wisconsin" has become a catchphrase in states like Ohio and South Dakota, where many Republican voters have decided to avoid or overturn anti-union legislation. "We have been an inspiration" to union activism nationwide, Conway said. He called on Wisconsinites not to think of their state as "Walker's Wisconsin" but as a state that is known for "standing behind" public sector workers.
Pocan reminded teachers that their rush to the capitol on February 15 to rally and testify in hearings led him and other legislators to research for the first time how to keep the doors of the capitol open all night. "They were going to kick everyone out, but one of the capitol workers said if you keep the hearings going, we can't close the building." So he and other legislators began what came to be known as perpetual public hearings. "You sent the message that you were not going to put up with what this governor was doing. Not just on collective bargaining but $1.6 billion cuts in education, a half billion in cuts for health care, thirty percent cuts in the technical college budget, photo ID laws—and then they raked the public for $350 an hour lawyers for redistricting."
Pocan reminded the crowd "But there is a remedy!" On January 17, 2012 1.9 million signatures were filed petitioning the state for the recall of the governor and other officials.
After the speeches, the teachers headed back out into the twilight for three laps around the capitol with signs, banners and chants. Laura Oppegard, a driver for Union Cab who said that she came to the rally because she supports her parents and other family members who are teachers, drew jagged and broken hearts in the snow. During the protests, she drove her cab in blockades and "democrobeep" horn rallies.
"I'd like to be an optimist and think we're going to make him go away," she said of Walker. "But it's a frightening reality right now. It's tightening, like a stranglehold. I fear the worst—but I'm going to keep hoping for the best."