An Account from Madison

Against the Current, No. 152, May/June 2011

Tessa Echeverria and Connor Donegan

AMONG THE FIRST the first publicized actions in opposition to the union-busting Budget Repair Bill was the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) February 14th delivery of valentines to Governor Walker’s office. Colin, an adjunct professor of English and a new member of Solidarity, recalls: “We marched on the sidewalk, not the street…People would look at each other to make sure others were chanting. Some clearly felt embarrassed and most didn’t know the chants.”

Barely 24 hours later, a tectonic shift in the political terrain had transformed and expanded the realm of possibility. An electrified mass of people, tens of thousands strong, took to the state house demanding furiously that the union-busting bill be killed.

Soon enough Colin noticed his friends and colleagues making uncharacteristically radical statements, including criticism of union leadership for being too conservative. “My understanding of my place in the world as a political actor,” he explains, “had fundamentally changed.”

His experience became a common one in Madison. Previously apolitical (in a narrow sense) establishments such as shops, bars and barbershops now display political signs to express sympathy for workers. Patrons’ conversations are often animated with stories about protests, unions and the hated governor. Politics — particularly pro-labor politics — are an easy conversation starter for strangers while tolerance for anti-labor politics has largely vanished.

The extent to which political subjectivities were transformed is exemplified by AFSCME’s February 15th “lobbying day” — when union leadership was forced to follow its rank and file into mass protest, as the vivacity of the popular movement made their lobbying day appear not only conservative but absurd.

Protest Transforms Daily Life

“Are you going to the Capitol?” “Can we stay the night?” “You should, when’s the next time you’ll be able to sleep in the Capitol?” Thousands of people who adjusted their daily routines to join the struggle changed the building from mere monument into a vibrant center of city life. Unbeknownst to us, there would be many chances to sleep there over the next few weeks.

By 8 pm on Tuesday, February 22nd, State Street (the heart of the downtown/university district) was abuzz with discussions of occupation. No one had thought the protests would grow to such numbers.

With hundreds of people choosing to spend their nights in the state house, it became important to figure out the logistics of holding the space. How do we provide food? How do we ensure that everybody knows what’s going on? These questions came up throughout the first week, and by day four of the Capitol Village a variety of work-stations were established within the building to meet the four main needs of information, food, health and childcare.

Because discerning fact from rumor was often impossible, student activists organized the Information Table where flyers on upcoming events and other written information could be found. Local businesses, many of which received money from across the country and the world, donated food.

The health station was set up to provide supplies of toothbrushes, band-aids, soap, socks, and other daily necessities. Activists established a childcare center using a back hallway where the children erected a sign that read “children’s space: no shoes, and remember corporations aren’t people, they don’t have belly buttons.”

People who gathered together with singular purpose found in themselves the legitimate authority that the state had lost. In fact, that was how it started. The protests snowballed immediately after the teachers’ mass sick-out. Students, union and nonunion workers — from both the public and private sector — filling the Capitol in opposition to the Budget Repair Bill, authorized themselves to intervene in the legislative process.

When the Senators went for recess, students and workers formed the blockades that stopped them from returning to their chambers. Colin joined a group of protesters in a stairwell. It was a learning experience — after allowing some reporters to pass through freely while they were busy talking, they taught themselves how to link arms and stand their ground. Upstairs, protesters were packed tightly into the space outside of chamber doors, chanting “Shut it down!”

Chants were also used to communicate important information, such as “Third floor left, needs more people.” Meanwhile, the Senate Sergeant at Arms, accompanied by Capitol Police, tramped through the building in search of the Democratic Senators, to secure the needed quorum.

Police pushed their way through a number of blockades until reaching a group of union ironworkers who held a key position. They stood toe-to-toe with frustrated police officers while behind them the Democrats fled the building and escaped apprehension.

Cooptation and Self-Policing

The police lockdown of the building occurred gradually. First, they began locking doors early and clearing out the upper floors at night. As they increased their control, inch by inch, and as the occupation became more formal, various logistics became harder to coordinate and so logistical “point people” emerged.

Shortly after an intense confrontation with police who began tearing posters off the walls, relations with police shifted. As those who staffed the work-stations — many of whom were from United Council, a lobby-focused student association — gained recognition as leaders, the police recognized them as a cadre to be co-opted.

By receiving privileged access to Capitol Police Chief Tubbs, these leaders had their self-importance vindicated while the police subtly eased control away from protesters through careful manipulation. Along with members of the TAA, they became conduits for police orders as they met with police every morning to plan out the day.

This dynamic contributed to the self-policing that had already emerged. Overblown self-consciousness about being peaceful (fed by fears of manipulative coverage from Fox News) and the false belief that the police were “on our side” were prevalent. The police-appointed leaders along with union-trained marshals (easily identified by their orange vests) fostered these tendencies and were quick to respond any time countervailing ideas broke out.

The obsession with looking good for the media and staying “peaceful ”— a term that became synonymous with lawfulness and compliance with police requests — failed to reflect the brutality of the moment in which people were struggling for their rights and livelihoods. As the second week came to an end and the police decided to lock down the Capitol, protesters broke from the leadership that asked them to go home.

There emerged a threat to the authority of the police, the union leadership and the Democratic Party — all seeking to end the occupation — as hundreds of people defied police orders to vacate the building. The occupation continued, but movement of supplies and protesters was restricted by police checkpoints at each entrance.

Working-Class Mobilization

When accounts of mass action in Wisconsin’s Capitol broke into the media, it appeared that the labor movement had spontaneously revived.

Union leadership was forced to follow their membership when, for example, teachers staged their highly successful sick-out that inspired workers around the state to protest the Budget Repair Bill. They headed straight to the Capitol building, followed by tens of thousands of workers and students inspired to stop the Senate from voting on the bill.

At a time when working-class organization was at an 80-year nadir, the occupation facilitated essential movement-building activities, turning the Capitol into a living symbol of the movement. Even more, the Capitol provided a meaningful and accessible place for everyone who wished to become involved to gather, to commune with each other and to organize, discuss and stage actions.

Following March 11th, when the Governor signed the bill, the movement has been faced with the daunting reality that the last 30 years of ruling-class offensives have systematically undermined — though not destroyed — the ability of working-class people to fight back and organize independently of established institutions.

What was beautiful about the mass movement at the Capitol — that it was leaderless (or, that it had so many became leaders) and that thousands of people were protesting and speaking out for the first time — also implies its weakness: the dearth of organization (the capacity to advance tactically and strategically on an effective scale) and, arguably, radical education.

Yet people here are yearning to learn the erased history of working-class struggle. For example, when local historian and Solidarity member Allen Ruff took up the microphone to give his street speeches on social movements and forms of struggle, protesters literally shouted out from the crowd to ask him to elaborate, for example, on potential tactics such as boycotts and wildcats. There’s a palpable gap between the power that the movement here wishes to exercise and its organizational and political capacity.

At a recent coalition meeting, organizers discussed the need for workers to start planning small workplace actions that build confidence and work slowly towards strike actions. Ideas included having brown-bag lunches (eating lunch with your co-workers to discuss politics), picketing before work and walking in as a group, and slowdowns. Such solidarity-building acts are the first steps towards organizing independently of the conservative union leadership.

The sheer number of organizers stepping up to accomplish these tasks and the widespread politicization of the population give us strength as we move forward. The movement was spontaneous, but did not arise in a fully developed form. Undoing decades of backwards motion will take time, and comrades elsewhere would do well to remember that the political education, alliance building and other actions that they are taking now will be the soil from which the next movement will sprout.

Conclusion: Organization and Vision

Despite the organizational and ideological limitations on the movement’s first phase, there were moments when deference to authority vanished as large numbers of people used direct action to “kill the bill.”

While protesters often acted in compliance with police, militant acts of defiance such as the first blockade occurred sporadically. On March 9th, after weeks of acquiescing to the police lockdown of the Capitol, protesters once again flooded into the Capitol, breaking through police lines and retaking control of the building only hours after learning that the Senate had passed a revised version of the Budget Repair Bill.

When their numbers dwindled to roughly 200, due to the start of the workday and police having locked the doors, the second round of sit-ins and blockades were ended by State Troopers who dragged 80 people out of the way to allow Assembly Representatives into their chamber. It was clear enough that protesters, regardless of their respect for officers as individuals, had learned better than to follow police orders or to trust their words.

Wisconsinites had moved from deference to direct-action overnight. The task now is to build the organizing capacity to match the movement’s vigor and to forge a vision that expresses and develops its aspirations for societal transformation. As Stephanie Luce wrote after witnessing the mass rally of March 12 (

“The beauty of the Wisconsin fightback highlights the ways in which relying on old methods is not enough. No doubt Democrats and labor unions bought lots of ads for the November election and still lost big. This time around, union leaders need to talk with (not “at”) their members. Workers need to keep talking with co-workers; neighbors with neighbors. Luckily, some of these structures are in place from many years of organizing in Wisconsin, and the hard work of unrelenting activists. That, combined with the new energy from hundreds of thousands of people, can really show us what democracy could look like.”

ATC 152, May-June 2011