How Big Labor and Progressive Groups Pulled Off the
Biggest Protests in 40 Years

by Andy Kroll

Mother Jones

March 4, 2011

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.

What follows is a behind-the-scenes account of how the
massive Wisconsin rallies came together, based on
interviews with a dozen people who were intimately
involved in them. It is by no means an exhaustive or
complete account. But it offers a window into how the
unions and their allies responded, swiftly and
effectively, to what they saw as an existential threat.

Bracing For a Fight

Wisconsin Democrats sustained a historic beating on
Election Day 2010, losing majorities in both chambers
of the state legislature. Voters ousted the state
senate majority leader and majority caucus leader, both
Democrats. The Democratic assembly speaker didn't even
bother to run a reelection campaign, so confident was
he that his working-class constituents would back him
for another term. He lost, too.

But what really worried union members was the election
of Republican Scott Walker, who won the state's
gubernatorial race by 5.7 points over Milwaukee mayor
Tom Barrett. The unions feared that Walker, part of a
new wave of conservative governors, would make
Wisconsin a "right-to- work" state, joining 22 others
where workers who don't want to be part of a union can
simply choose not to pay dues. Unions vehemently oppose
right-to-work laws, saying they result in lower wages
for all workers, endanger workers' safety and health,
and are unfair to workers who do pay union dues. "We
had all these losses on November 2," says Stephanie
Bloomingdale, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL- CIO
in Wisconsin. "On November 3, we began prepping for a
right-to-work battle."

In the weeks following the election, the Wisconsin
AFL-CIO and other unions began plotting their
anti-right-to-work campaign. "Don't Let Politicians
Take Your Union Away," read the postcards Bloomingdale
and her team mailed to every AFL- CIO member in the
state. In early December, on the day that a group of
state union honchos were set to talk strategy, the
first bomb dropped: "GOP leader floats right-to-work
law," blared a headline in the Milwaukee
Journal-Sentinel. The Republicans wouldn't be in charge
in Madison for another month, but the fight was already

"We All Expected the Worst-And It Was Worse"

Governor Walker took office on January 3. He wasn't
scheduled to unveil his "budget repair bill," a set of
cuts and stopgap measures aimed at plugging a
$165-million hole in Wisconsin's 2009-2011 budget,
until the second week of February. But in the days
before Walker's announcement, bits of information
trickled out about the governor's plan, recalls Robert
Kraig, the executive director of Citizen Action of
Wisconsin. The rumors put Kraig on edge. "We'd heard
they might go after the unions, maybe even try to
repeal bargaining rights," he says. "Still, we thought
that was the long-shot option."

At 6:45 p.m. on the Thursday before the budget
announcement, the second bomb dropped. Someone in the
Walker administration leaked a skeleton summary of the
"repair" bill; Kraig got a copy from The Wheeler
Report, a no-frills political website run by veteran
Wisconsin reporter Dick Wheeler. He was stunned.
Walker's bill didn't just attack unions: It was a move
to wipe them off the map.

According to the leaked summary, the bill would
eliminate collective bargaining for most public-sector
unions, a move affecting 170,000 employees statewide.
It would require public employees, who'd already taken
a 3 percent pay cut in the previous two years, to
contribute 5.8 percent of wages to fund their pensions
and 12.6 percent of wages to pay for health care
premiums. (Currently, they pay 0.2 percent of wages
into their pensions and 5.6 percent of wages for health
premiums. However, state employees fund 100 percent of
their pensions through deferred compensation. Walker is
demanding more money on top of that to fill a deficit
in the pension fund.) Another provision would force
unions to vote each year to maintain their union
status-an unprecedented move by the governor.

Word of the bill's contents spread like wildfire in the
labor community, and Kraig was inundated with calls. On
a voicemail to Kraig, Bruce Colburn, a top official
with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU),
exclaimed, "Robert, they're going for everything!"

"We all expected the worst-and it was worse," says

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."

The battle brewing in Madison didn't really go national
until the Associated Press published a short story in
which Walker said he'd call in the state National Guard
if public workers caused "unrest." Kraig was in a
meeting with union officials when an alert about the
story landed in his email inbox. His eyes widened.

At that point Bloomingdale, the AFL-CIO
secretary-treasurer, was driving back from Indiana
where she'd spoken at a "Women of Steel" union event
earlier that day. She heard about Walker's National
Guard threat about the same time Kraig did and right
away wanted national coverage of the brewing
controversy. "Blast it out," she told him, referring to
the national media list of 25 reporters Kraig had
recently acquired from SEIU officials in Washington,
DC. He hadn't used the list that often, and he
hesitated to use it now. But Bloomingdale wouldn't

"Just do it," she said firmly. "Do it."

School's Out

For the union organizers, the weekend after Walker
unveiled his bill was grueling, but it paid off. 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.

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

The TAs Take Over

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, 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

Going Nuclear

"Fuck Scott Walker." Tom Bird wrote those words on his
Facebook page shortly after reading about the
governor's "repair" bill on Friday, February 11. His
next thought was, Well, we probably can't do anything
about it. A skinny 22- year-old from Oshkosh, Bird is
getting his master's in nuclear engineering at
UW-Madison. His specialty is plasma physics, not labor

In the days after the bill came out, Bird started
stopping by the protests. He joined a student walkout,
trudging through the snow up to the Capitol with a
friend. He says he didn't fully join the cause until
the state Senate's 14 Democratic members fled the state
on Friday, February 18, preventing a vote on Walker's
bill. (Nineteen state senators are Republicans;
financial bills in the state senate require a quorum of
twenty members.) After that, Bird started hanging out
inside the Capitol, meeting people and marveling at the
swelling crowd inside the rotunda. Before long, he was
joining the raucous drum circle at the heart of the
protest and manning the megaphone, always wearing his
Wisconsin baseball cap.

On the ninth or tenth day of the protest, Bird and a
group of diehards created the Capitol City Leadership
Committee, an umbrella group of the half-dozen
factions-the medics, TAA, protest marshals, and
more-behind the occupation of the Capitol. The
committee's main job was to ensure that the protesters
remained peaceful and respectful while still voicing
forceful opposition to Walker's bill.

The Wisconsin protests have radicalized Bird. One
night, when I met him and some friends for drinks at an
Irish pub in Madison, he pointed to his upper arm. "A
few of us might get tattoos of the Wisconsin solidarity
fist," he told me. "Except on mine I want the Polish
version: Solidarnosc."

A New Sense of Purpose

On Monday, February 21, Governor Walker gave his first
press conference since the protests had erupted. By
then, the controversy surrounding his bill was national
news and the unions felt that they had the wind at
their backs. Walker's embarrassing 20-minute phone
conversation with a prankster pretending to be
right-wing billionaire David Koch only added to the
unions' momentum.

Two weeks later, the fight in Wisconsin rumbles on.
Walker refuses to negotiate with the unions on the
issue of collective bargaining, despite the unions'
willingness to make concessions on health care and
pension contributions. The 14 Democratic state senators
remain out of state, though it's unclear how long
they'll stay away. On Tuesday, Walker released his
budget plan for 2011-2013, a grab bag of proposals that
drastically cuts aid to schools, local government, and
women's health programs.

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."

[Andy Kroll  works in Mother Jones' DC Bureau. His work
has appeared at The Wall Street Journal,, The Detroit News, Salon, and, where he's an associate editor. He can
be reached at [log in to unmask] ]


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