Alex Hanna was in Egypt watching a revolution unfold when she found out that the governor of her state back home was proposing to eliminate her union rights. Hanna was co-president of the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) and a graduate student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison when Scott Walker was elected governor; she and others within the union and its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) of Wisconsin, had been concerned that the Republican, swept into office as part of the Tea Party wave of 2010, would be bad for union workers. But they hadn’t expected anything like Act 10.
The act that Walker proposed as a “budget repair” bill on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2011, mirrored what was being called “austerity” in Europe, purporting to balance the state budget with cuts to salaries and benefits for public employees as well as cuts to services. The cuts were to be expected in the still severe economic downturn, but few had predicted that the governor would eliminate or severely curtail the rights of most public employees to collectively bargain. What was really shocking was the way austerity seemed to serve a kind of disciplinary function; the moralistic language Walker used to describe the bill presented this belt-tightening not only as a response to the crisis but as a punishment, and the punishment was aimed at the victims of the crash rather than its perpetrators. Hanna and the TAA saw the bill as a naked attack on their rights in the workplace by a governor who had run promising to bring jobs back to their struggling state.
The TAA had already planned a rally for Valentine’s Day, in a preemptive strike against likely cuts to the university, and Hanna was deluged with emails asking her to come home. She was observing the popular revolution that had begun in Egypt in the winter of 2011, part of what came to be known as the Arab Spring. But the attacks on the union and the university were serious enough that she returned just in time for the February 14 action. The TAA led a crowd of marchers up State Street from the university campus to deliver a thousand valentines protesting Act 10 to Walker at the Capitol. It was an impressive showing, but marches were common enough in Madison that few expected this one to be different. Jenni Dye, a lawyer based in Madison, was downtown eating brunch and saw the protesters. “I thought, ‘Oh look, another Madison protest.’”
The next day the Joint Finance Committee of the legislature held a hearing on Act 10. The TAA and other union protesters had planned a “people’s filibuster” of the bill, lining up hundreds of people to speak against it and extending the comment period all day and all night. The repeal of collective bargaining rights, they argued, had nothing to do with “repairing” holes in the budget; freezing their wages was one thing, and even increasing the amounts they had to contribute to their pensions and health insurance could at least be vaguely connected to a need for funds, but getting rid of their right to negotiate for a raise higher than the cost of living when the economy improved was very different and had little to do with the current budget problems. People were incensed. “We had people stuffed in the overflow room of the Capitol, people in line, and the unions were agitating outside,” Hanna said. As the comments stretched on into the evening, the protesters created the Defend Wisconsin Twitter account to send out updates. At the beginning of the day, Hanna said, they’d been told that testimony would continue until everyone had been heard, but sometime after midnight the legislators cut off the speakers, announcing they’d heard enough.