It began outside the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union. A few dozen members of the Teaching Assistants Association , the oldest graduate employee union in the world, rallied to object  to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plan to strip public employee unions of collective bargaining rights. The message from the TAA was blunt : “All public sector workers are under attack. Faculty and staff are under attack. The UW as a whole is under attack. With these extreme acts, Scott Walker is seeking to undermine the labor peace of 50 years…. You need to get active now!”
Two weeks later, upwards of 125,000 Wisconsinites rallied at the state Capitol in Madison, as tens of thousands more rallied in communities across the state that American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union President Gerald McEntee calls “ground-zero in the fight for labor rights. Police estimates from before the crowd hit its peak were in the range of 100,000, but busloads of union members and their allies continued to arrive through the afternoon. And while the crowds outside the Capitol were massive, thousands more were inside the building. By nightfall, news outlets such as CNN were using the 125,000 figure, as the Wisconsin AFL-CIO cited estimates of 150,000 .
Snow fell throughout the day, and temperatures were frigid. It was so cold, in fact, that north-central Wisconsin farmer Joel Greeno, could not get the tractor he hoped to drive in the mass march around the Capitol free from the ice. “So I just finished my chores and hopped in the truck so I could get here as soon as I could,” Greeno said. “It would have killed me if I missed this. This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen happen in Wisconsin.”
Greeno joined a day-long demonstration that surrounded the Capitol, spilled down the streets of the city and even filled the statehouse for what local historian Stuart Levitan described as “the largest political event ever in Madison.”
The people-power surge came in response to what the senior member of the Wisconsin legislature, state Senator Fred Risser, D-Madison, describes as Walker’s “dictatorial” actions, and to what state Representative Cory Mason, D-Racine, describes as “tyranny.”
In interviews with national networks, Walker has tried to spin the fantasy that the crowds that have surrouned the Capitol for almost two weeks aren’t made up of real Wisconsinites. That was a lie, coming from a politician who has spun a web of deception in recent days. But it did generate plenty of mocking signs:
“Walker: Governor of Wall Street, Not Wisconsin”
“I’m From Wisconsin, What Planet Is Walker From?”
“Beam Scotty Back to Outer Space.”
Hundreds of signs recalled the governor’s twenty-minute conversation last week with a prank caller who identified himself as billionaire David Koch:
“Walker is Governor of Kochonsin”
“Walker Has One Constituent: David Koch”
“Governor Walker, Your Koch Dealer Is On Line Two”
While Saturday’s rally in Madison saw the largest gathering of activists in this remarkable movement for economic and social justice, they will be joined by supporters in every one of the nation’s state capital cities, as well as Washington, DC. Thousands packed the grounds of government buildings in Denver, St. Paul and Columbus, while even larger crowds were seen in San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
Energized by the images of Wisconsinites night after winter night —and filling the state Capitol with chants of “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”—unions across the country are beginning to outline clear and uncompromising agendas for defending public services and the rights of public workers.
One of the strongest statements has come from Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, who explained “what all working families should know:”
- Who caused the economic crisis? Banks, Wall Street speculators, mortgage lenders, global corporations shifting jobs from the U.S. overseas.
- Who is profiting in the recession? Corporate profits, 3rd quarter of 2010, were $1.6 trillion, 28 percent higher than the year before, the biggest one-year jump in history. Meanwhile, average wages and total wages have fallen for all incomes, except the wealthiest Americans whose income grew five-fold.
- Who is not paying their fair share? In U.S. states facing a budget shortfall, revenues from corporate taxes have declined $2.5 billion in the last year. In Wisconsin, two-thirds of corporations pay no taxes, and the share of state revenue from corporate taxes has fallen by half since 1981. Nationally, according to a General Accountability Study out today, 72 percent of all foreign corporations and about 57 percent of U.S. companies doing business in the United States paid no federal income taxes for at least one year between 1998 and 2005.
- Are public employees overpaid? State workers typically earn 11 percent less, local public workers 12 percent less than private employees with comparable education and experience. Nationally, cutting the federal payroll in half would reduce spending by less than 3 percent.
- Would pay and benefit concessions by public employees stop the demands? The right has made it clear it wants A- cuts in public pay, pensions, and health benefits, followed by B- restricting collective bargaining for public sector workers, followed by C- prohibiting public sector unions.
- Will the right be troubled if cuts in working standards make it harder to recruit teachers and other public servants? No. Take public teachers, many of whom have accepted wage freezes and other cuts in recent years. Many in the right have a fairly open goal of privatizing education, and destabilizing public schools serves this purpose. The right also salutes the shredding of government workforce, part of its overall goal to gut all government service and make it harder to crack down on corporate abuses or implement other public protections and services.
- Will the right stop at curbing public workers rights? Employers across the U.S. are demanding major concessions from private sector workers, and breaking unions. Rightwing governors and state legislators are seeking new laws to restrict union rights for all private and public employees.
- Does everyone have a stake in this fight? Yes. It’s an old axiom that the rise in living standards for the middle class in the 1950s was the direct result of a record rate of unionization in America. It is of course unions that won the eight-hour day, weekends off, and many other standards all Americans take for granted that are now often threatened with the three-decade-long attack on unions spurred by that rightwing icon Ronald Reagan. The corollary is that increased wages and guaranteed pensions put money into the economy, with a ripple effect that creates jobs and spurs the economy for all.
NNU has taken the lead in national organizing, with DeMoro declaring that the first lesson to be taken from Wisconsin is that: “Working people—with our many allies, students, seniors, women’s organizations, and more—are inspired and ready to fight.
That has become clear this weekend.
MoveOn.org and other progressive groups, along with unions across the country, called for the nationwide Rallies to Save the American Dream. The call from MoveOn laid things out well: “In Wisconsin and around our country, the American Dream is under fierce attack. Instead of creating jobs, Republicans are giving tax breaks to corporations and the very rich—and then cutting funding for education, police, emergency response, and vital human services. On Saturday, February 26, at noon local time, we are organizing rallies in front of every statehouse and in every major city to stand in solidarity with the people of Wisconsin. We demand an end to the attacks on worker’s rights and public services across the country. We demand investment, to create decent jobs for the millions of people who desperately want to work. And we demand that the rich and powerful pay their fair share.”
“We are all Wisconsin. We are all Americans,” declared the call. “This Saturday, we will stand together to Save the American Dream. Be sure to wear Wisconsin Badger colors—red and white—to show your solidarity. “
To see reports from Madison, visit the great www.prwatch.org  site.
To see reports from around the country, check out the www.moveon.org  site