Workers Fight Back: The Midwest Unites to Defend the Commons
I’d never been to Madison, Wisconsin before this Saturday, and seeing the city filled with 70,000 people demanding their rights on a cold, late winter day was the best possible first impression. Standing in front of the capital with firefighters, teachers, LVNs, nurses, teaching assistants, and other public workers and their supporters, I was one small part of an overwhelming crowd spilling over the capitol lawn and onto the streets, far too large to take in from any one vantage point. I was there with the Graduate Employees Organization from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, sleep deprived from our early morning rise in order to make the drive from Illinois in time for the 10:30am rally.
Was it Scott Walker who brought us here? At first thought, the convergence seems a sad occasion, in a country where we appear to be losing ideological ground as a rightwing resurgence slowly chips away at hard-won rights. In one fell swoop, a governor seeks to erase organizing rights that were historically gained and preserved through the blood, sweat, and tears of workers and organizers. Gov. Walker’s bill would erode collective bargaining rights for public workers on all issues except wages and force public workers to pay substantially more for their healthcare and pensions, amounting to an 8% pay decrease. All of this in the state that was the first to grant collective bargaining rights over half a century ago.
But on second glance, the scene is a cause for hope. It was the sixth day of Wisconsin workers crowding the streets, showing up in the tens of thousands to fight Walker's draconian measures, and the energy was overwhelming. In moments of convergence like these, the fight becomes about more than the issue at hand. These are transformative spaces: small Midwestern cities changed into loci of regional protest. Ordinary people taking extraordinary measures: calling in sick, walking out of class, driving across country, stopping traffic, handing out food to thousands of strangers.
People overwhelmingly insisted that the battle is “not about money,” but respect and dignity. It’s about allowing public workers to follow through on their obligations to educate our children, treat our sick, and serve our public. It is about defending the commons.
After the 10:30am rally, protesters streamed into the capital. Over eight thousand people filled the multiple layers of that icon of Wisconsin state power. Protesters chanted "Union Power!" and "There ain't no power like the power of the people ‘cause the power of the people don't stop!”
Of course, the Tea Party came to show their support for Walker's anti-union bill, and of course, the mainstream media disproportionately covered them, even though they were a tiny presence, dwarfed by those defending their union rights.
We know the Tea Party doesn’t represent working-class America, despite their media spotlight. Working-class America is in the streets of Wisconsin in the tens of thousands, holding out for another freezing cold day with signs reading "Show teachers some respect" and "We make Wisconsin work."
As a graduate student active in my own union, I am grateful that my generation has the opportunity to witness the movements, uprisings, and revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Not just because these revolts unravel the notion that the U.S. is an unstoppable empire free to support and instate dictators at will. Not just because these events highlight the cruel irony of the U.S. government’s economic support for dictatorships, wars, and occupations in this region while eroding the public goods of its own citizens. I’m grateful because these events remind us that people can, and do, struggle collectively for a better world, in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, in the millions.
The repression and government onslaught in the Middle East has been horrific, and many of us have watched in horror as governments have repressed, wounded, and murdered their people, with the number of dead in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Iran still climbing. We have also watched as the U.S. government has continued to support dictators of strategic interest, even as they kill people in the streets (sometimes with U.S. weapons).
There is no way to tell which way things are headed, but it is crystal clear that revolt is sweeping the region. Things are changing, dictators are falling, and others shaking with fear.
This is not to say that Madison is Tahrir Square, but simply to say that we must believe that people working collectively can and will change society, no matter how bleak the conditions that bring us together. And we can dream big, fight the root causes behind these political attacks. We can build alternatives to capitalist approaches that place trust in the power of brute self-interest and roll back public goods, spaces, and decision-making power. The numbers in the streets show that Wisconsin wants something better and is willing to fight for it. Walker may have started a fight, but now a larger storm is brewing.
My first experience of Madison was one in which the city was swirling with hope, energy, and possibility. Let's keep going from here.