The Nation spoke with Beth Huang, a University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduate who has played a key role in organizing the student protests. Beth gave us the inside scoop on the fiery campus campaign that sparked and exploded, becoming one of the country’s loudest student activist movements in years. From couch-crashing Cornell students to manic Twitter accounts, here’s a look at how the youth are doing battle on behalf of labor.
Long before Wisconsin started blowing up, Beth was laying the groundwork. She’s an elected representative for the Associated Students of Madison, a devoted disciple of the student labor action coalition (affectionately nicknamed SLACKERS), and a card-carrying member of the College Democrats. But she laughed telling The Nation this is the first time she’s seen all three groups work together. “This issue is so huge it galvanized the student government into email spamming the entire 42,000 student population to come to the rallies and fight. The ASM never takes a stance on anything not related to students—especially not labor. That’s when I knew this was going to be huge.”
Beth first got wind of Walker’s radical plan on Thursday Feb 10, when the Teaching Assistants’ Association showed up late to the SLACKERS meeting and dropped the bomb. The students were shocked, but immediately began gearing up for battle. “There was a huge sense of urgency that first weekend,” Beth told the Nation. “The TAA’s office looked like a war room. We were bombarding people with calls—everyone we knew—every student club we could think of—friends and family across the state—setting up buses to ship in protesters—calling media to let them know we wouldn’t be going down without a fight.”
Students can be notoriously apathetic about labor issues, but 1,000 people turned out to the first campus rally on Monday Feb 14th—a number that has grown exponentially at every rally afterward. Beth said “I could hardly believe my eyes when I got halfway down State St. and saw this mass of students marching towards the Capitol after the rally. I’ve never seen that many protesters in Madison—ever—except in a movie I once saw about 1960’s Madison anti-war activism.”
Beth had a few theories on why students have become so active: “The politics are hitting so close to home. And by home, I mean our actual home. We are fiercely loyal to this school, and Governor Walker is coming after OUR teachers. Students are next in line to be attacked with the budget coming out. The future of Wisconsin is at stake whether we are students or workers or retirees. THAT’s why a lot of young people are fighting.”
The Wisconsin-Madison campus is humming with activity, and in every corner people are talking. Student leaders are inviting library-goers into 20 minute protest education ‘study-breaks’ in the café. Professors are holding class at the Capitol. Daily campus rallies are attended by thousands of people – some of whom have never cared about politics before. Twitter and Facebook home pages are brimming over with status updates about the latest news (“I can’t even count how many FB event invitations I’ve received to rallies and phone bank sessions and Capitol meet-ups,” says Beth). It appears that the initial mobilization by a few campus clubs has opened the floodgates on an avalanche of fresh student activism, among disparate and previously disconnected cells of individuals across the city and country.
“I’m housing Cornell students on my couch this week. Lots of people coming in from outside the city are just sleeping in the Capitol. We joke that we’re ‘sleeping in solidarity’ not ‘standing in solidarity.’ But it’s become a symbol of democracy -the people of Wisconsin have been able to make the Capitol our space, and we keep our space by sleeping in the Capitol.” Alongside students, sleep firefighters (‘It’s difficult for police to arrest firefighters,’ Beth notes). Ian’s Pizza down the street opened an online donation button, and funds to feed the Capitol demonstrators have poured in across the world – coming everywhere from China to Egypt.
Beth closed our interview with a promise: “I’ve lived in Wisconsin for 19 years now. My Dad chose to move here because he thought it was a good state to raise a family—a place that educates its people, makes sure that everyone is healthy and has access to healthcare, and that workers have rights. We won’t stand by while that is destroyed.”