More than 10,000 Wisconsinites marched on the state Capitol Tuesday, as crowds rallied in cities around the state, students walked out of high schools and public employees lined roadways holding aloft banners declaring their determination to battle an attempt by Republican Governor Scott Walker to strip state workers of their collective bargaining rights and pack state government positions with political patronage appointees.
Another huge crowd—numbering perhaps 8,000—surrounded the Capitol for a Tuesday night rally. Protests spread to the Milwaukee area, where hundreds of workers massed outside Walker's suburban home.
The crowds in Madison will swell Wednesday. The city's schools are closing, as teachers take sick days to join the protests and buses packed with public employees roll into the city.
The protests, unprecedented in recent Wisconsin history, are being organized by union—the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the Wisconsin Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin and others—in anticipation of a Thursday vote on whether to give the governor powers that the senior member of the state legislature describes as nothing short of dictatorial.
Many of those who showed up for one of the first of what expected to be days of ever-expanding protests borrowed themes language and themes from the crowds that filled the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities to call for the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial reign.
Signs at Tuesday’s rally—which the AFL-CIO said attracted a crowd of 15,000 and which news outlets broadly reported drew more 10,000 state and local employees and their backers— referred to the governor as “Hosni Walker” and declared: “Protest Like an Egyptian.”
Another asked: “If Egypt Can Have Democracy, Why Can’t Wisconsin?”
One senior state employee had gone online to find the Arabic words for “Remove Walker” and made a picket sign with the message.
Police barricades were erected on streets around the state Capitol as uniformed officers were posted to block protesters from entering parts of the building where a day-long hearing on the governor’s proposal was being held. But the crowd surged into the building after a rally that featured, among others, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, who identified the Wisconsin fight as a “ground zero” struggle for organized labor.
As evidence of the dawning recognition that the Wisconsin fight is an essential one for organized labor—and that Walker’s union-busting strategy poses a threat that could spread to other Republican-dominated states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania—unions that the governor had tried to break off with sweetheart deals began to break with the conservative governor. Hundreds of firefighters, whose contracts would be protected under the plan Walker proposes, showed up at the Tuesday’s rally and were drew roars of approval.
McEntee, the firefighters and others showed up not merely to protest but to lobby. While Republicans control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature, some veteran Republican legislators, such as state Sen. Luther Olsen, who represents many unionized workers, have suggested that the governor’s power grab is simply too “radical.” The longest serving member of the legislature, state Senator Fred Risser, a Madison Democrat well liked by senior Democrats and Republicans, has said: “Without a willingness to even discuss what concessions need to be made with state employees, the governor comes across more like a dictator and less like a leader.”
AFSCME put Republican members of the union front and center Tuesday, with Mike Recklies, a correctional officer from from Republican-leaning Walworth County, reminding conservatives that “there is no bigger government than the one that takes away an individual’s rights and freedom—and that’s exactly what we’re seeing going on in Madison right now. The legislature needs to think hard about what it means to be an American and stop this Big Government power grab against individual rights.”
Brenda Klein, a food service worker from Green Bay, said: “I went to the polls last November and voted to protect our freedoms from government threat and to create jobs. I never dreamed that this would be the result. The bill being rammed through the legislature does the opposite and it must be stopped.”
A shaken Walker, conscious that he has stirred up unprecedented anger, has threatened to call out the National Guard to put down protests.
But an archivist for the Wisconsin Historical Society showed up at Tuesday’s rally wearing a white T-shirt on which she had written: “I am not afraid of the National Guard.”
Progressive legislators raised an outcry about the governor’s threats and, as the workers rallied outside the Capitol, a cheer went up when the crowd saw three legislators—Democrats Mark Pocan, Cory Mason and Sondy Pope-Robert—come to the window of a hearing room and unfurl a banner that declared: “Solidarity!”
Pocan has taken the lead in detailing how Walker is not just attempting to gut union contracts but also moving to create dozens of new patrionage positions in state government.
A private-sector union member, Pocan has cheered on the demonstrations, arguing that they could yet turn needed votes against the governor’s plan.
On Tuesday, Pocan said: “The governor is trying to ram this through the legislature. But the people of Wisconsin aren’t just saying ‘no,’ they’re saying: ‘Hell no!’ ”