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Bigger than Unions, Bigger than Wisconsin

How Americans across professions, religions, and states are uniting in opposition to Wisconsin’s anti-union bill—and cultivating a movement that reaches far beyond the state border.
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Wisconsin Capitol Rallying, photos by Isaac Steiner

Signs of people power from around the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.

Photos by Isaac Steiner

Just before 3:00 a.m. yesterday, while helping myself from a massive pile of donated groceries in the Wisconsin state capitol, I met Taylor Tengwall. He is a junior at UW-Superior with no previous ties to the labor movement—or any movement, for that matter. “I’ve never done anything like this in my life,” he told me.

He first showed up in Madison over a week ago with some friends, expecting to leave two days later. But Tengwall says he was so moved by what he saw, he told his friends to go home without him.

“It’s been the most moving, paradigm-altering experience in my life,” he says, appearing totally energized despite the late hour. “I came here so outraged and angry. So many people did. And they’ve formed something so peaceful and so meaningful.” He’s realized, he says, that “we have power.”

From Firefighters to Faith Leaders: A Movement of Solidarity

Public sector workers and union members stand to lose the most from the passage of the Budget Repair Bill, the proposed Wisconsin law that would essentially strip unions of their collective bargaining rights. And union members and leadership were certainly key to the early organization of the protests. But it doesn’t take more than a few hours in Madison talking to protesters and listening to Wisconsinites’ testimony to realize that this is a movement that’s gone far beyond union members.

An amazing, organic array of students, white-collar workers, religious leaders, unionized workers not covered by the bill, and average citizens have all amassed together in Madison. And they’ve inspired rallies around the country, as non-union supporters have joined with union workers to stand in solidarity with Wisconsin or to stand up against similar proposals in their own states.

Most media has focused on the massive crowds packing the capitol’s rotunda and the streets outside. With tens of thousands of people taking part, those scenes have been impressive to witness in person. But on the third floor of the capitol, a much quieter, more reserved scene has unfolded. Democratic lawmakers have held round-the-clock hearings on the bill, hearing from state residents, one by one, about how the bill would affect them. The majority are not union members, but rather Wisconsinites of all stripes.

Many of them are students. Jessica Weber, an undergraduate student studying education at UW-Platteville, sat down at the microphone in front of a packed room. She has wanted to be a teacher since she was a child, she explained. But the Walker bill has made her “scared.”

“It’s like a slap in my face,” Weber said. “Wisconsin has never made me feel this way before; I'm sad that there are people who have the power to do this."

Analyse Dickinson, a UW-Madison student originally from Michigan, took the mic next. She was worried about the bill's potential to create a phenomenon her home state experiences: "brain drain," the loss of educated people to states with better jobs and working conditions. More importantly, she said, the bill would reorient the state's priorities away from average people and towards the rich.

"We just couldn't stand by and let this happen to our brothers and sisters ... We are firefighters, we respond to emergencies... We are responding to an emergency of the middle class."

"It will show Wisconsin to be a state where corporations are more important than workers," she said. Her opposition "is about respecting the rights of those who can't afford to buy power."

That opposition is shared by religious leaders throughout the state and country. Madison-area rabbis released a joint statement Wednesday condemning the bill, saying, "As rabbis this an affront to our values—the Jewish mandate to protect workers, as well as the poor and needy among us. It is an affront to our deep value for education, for supporting women's rights, and for creating sustainable communities. And it is an affront to our belief that these issues should be debated openly and fairly under public scrutiny."

Progressive faith leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., have come out against the bill, of course, but so have other local faith leaders not known for backing labor causes. Religious leaders in Wisconsin and Illinois even offered safe haven for the 14 Democratic state senators who fled the state to prevent the bill’s passage. Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, changed the old protest chant to say, “Tell me what religion looks like. / This is what religion looks like.”

Wisconsin firefighter, video still by Finn Ryan
We Are Wisconsin

Video: Meet the people making history in Wisconsin.

Unionized workers whose rights aren’t on the line have been some of the most vocal participants. Some of the only public workers who will not lose collective bargaining rights with the bill are police officers and firefighters. (Both unions endorsed Walker for governor). So the prominent participation of firefighters and police throughout the protests has been somewhat surprising.

It shouldn’t be, they say. "We just couldn't stand by and let this happen to our brothers and sisters," Mahlon Mitchell, State President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin told the Huffington Post. "We are firefighters, we respond to emergencies... We are responding to an emergency of the middle class."

In the large rotunda rallies, no other group draws such raucous cheers as the firefighters.

“It’s powerful,” says Alex Hanna, a sociology grad student at UW-Madison and the president of the Teachers Assistants Association. “Everyone knows they’re here to show solidarity. It really says a lot about the sense of camaraderie this whole movement has produced.”

We’re Not in Wisconsin Anymore

“What happens in Wisconsin affects every man, woman, and child in America. Nothing less than the fate of our middle class is at stake.”

Over the last week, solidarity rallies have spread rapidly far beyond Wisconsin. In large cities like New York and Chicago, as well as small ones like Juneau, Ala., and Helena, Mon., citizens have demonstrated or are planning demonstrations to show their support for the workers of Wisconsin. On Saturday, MoveOn.org is helping to coordinate similar demonstrations in the capitols of all 50 states. A USA Today/Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans oppose attacks on collective bargaining such as the one in the Wisconsin bill.

But not all of the demonstrations are about simply supporting Wisconsin; in many states, workers are defending themselves from similar attacks on their benefits or bargaining rights. The Washington Post cites hotspots in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and California. In Trenton, New Jersey, AFLCIO president told demonstrators, “What happens in Wisconsin affects every man, woman, and child in America. Nothing less than the fate of our middle class is at stake.”

Wisconsin protests, photo by Peter GormanWisconsin: The First Stop in an American Uprising?

In Columbus, Ohio, where thousands protested an anti-union bill, state troopers locked the citizens out of the state’s capitol for fear of a Madison-style occupation. Indiana state senators have taken a page from Wisconsin senators and have fled their state in protest of an anti-union bill there (the state senate leader has declared the Right to Work provision of the bill “dead”).

On Saturday, students and union supporters will rally in Topeka, Kansas—unlike Madison, a city not known for a long history of labor fights and solidarity. Ben Jefferies, an economics student at Kansas University, is one of the Wisconsin supporters organizing the protest.

“A strong union movement was and still is essential to the creation of that middle class,” Jefferies said. “It is truly cultural amnesia that people have forgotten that fact.” He’s particularly concerned about the Wisconsin bill because he’s seen the effect of similar legislation passed in his home state.

“Kansas, as a right to work state, has already lost much of the legal framework which allowed unions of public or private sector workers to become strong,” he said. “The fundamental issue with this bill is that it strips workers of the legal standing to collectively bargain, eroding a key component of workplace democracy. If we let that happen in one place, it will likely spread to others. It's important to show strong support for workers rights now before those that oppose workers rights gain any more momentum.”


Micah Uetricht

Micah Uetricht wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Micah is a staff writer for CampusProgress.org and GapersBlock.com, and a frequent contributor to In These Times. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter for updates from Wisconsin this weekend.

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