Angry Wisconsin workers occupy Capitol

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MADISON, Wis. - Thousands of union members and their allies have effectively occupied the state Capitol and the grounds around it for more than 36 hours now.

The first wave that jammed Capitol Square here yesterday to protest Gov. Scott Walker's plan to crush workers' rights camped overnight and marched all day today through the halls of the Capitol, continuing a vigil they say will not end until the state's governor "stops his attack on the workers."

"The people will not be pushed aside," Sarah Mann, an SEIU organizer, said by cell phone from inside the occupied Capitol building. The chants of hundreds of public employees, union activists and supporters from the community could be heard as she spoke. (Story continues after video.)

Meanwhile, the crowds outside, preparing for a second huge rally at 5 p.m. today, had already grown to over 20,000. The mass demonstrations and, thus far, two-day occupation of the Capitol building were triggered by the Republican governor's budget proposal which called for elimination of collective bargaining rights for state workers.

As the first crowds jammed the square yesterday more than 3,000 went inside the Capitol where they chanted and protested while a hearing on the bill was conducted. By today their numbers had grown to 5,000, according to union organizers.

As Mann spoke, she said, teachers, teacher assistants and hundreds of students were being "peacefully escorted" into the Capitol building by state police. "There is no problem with the police," she said. "They know that if Walker gets away with this they will be next." Madison teachers called in sick en masse forcing the district to cancel classes.

Many of the 5,000 inside the Capitol are members of SEIU, the United Food and Commercial Workers and AFSCME, the three unions that have done the largest amount of organizing for the protests. "Among us are nursing assistants and janitors," said Mann. "The lowest paid workers are taking time off and losing pay to be here because they know how important this is. I can't describe to you the feeling of empowerment we all have - the workers are saying they will not let this happen."

Protests are breaking out all over the state with more than 1,000 marching even in front of Walker's suburban Milwaukee home.

AFSCME President Gerald McEntee told the thousands of chanting and sign-waving people in front of the Capitol, "For 75 years, we've fought to make our voices heard. We're not going to let this happen. We won't let them break the back of the middle class of Wisconsinites. We are strong. We are united."

Walker has promised that he will not negotiate any changes to his plan to crush union rights and that if the legislature does not pass his plan Feb. 17 he will order massive layoffs that unions and their allies say would cripple state services and cost thousands of jobs.

All over the country, parallels are being drawn between Walker and the recently-ousted Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak.

The headline on Harold Myerson's Washington Post column today read, "Wisconsin Pharaoh Tries to Silence Unions."

Signs carried by the demonstrators in Madison and in front of the governor's house compared Walker to the Egyptian dictator. They included banners that said, "Hosni Walker," "Don't Dictate, Negotiate," and "Dictators Will Fall."

The governor's decision to draft a budget plan that depends, for its fulfillment, on the destruction of workers' rights has increased both the anger of union workers and support for them in the broader population.

"It's one thing to do fiscal business but it's another to do political business and take people's rights away," said Arlyn Halvorson, an AFSCME highway worker participating in the protests.

Mike Oliver, a retired member of the Communications Workers of America, also in the crowd, said, "I am demonstrating here to support my fellow union members who are on the job now. I am all for the governor balancing the budget, but not on the backs of state workers."

Many see bitter irony in Wisconsin, the first state in the nation to grant, in 1959, public employees the right to collective bargaining, now being the center of the battle to protect those rights.

"Walker is using the Trojan Horse of a budget bill to change the long-standing support in this state for workers' rights," said Wisconsin state AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt. The union leader said the governor's plan will hurt private sector workers as well. "This is an attack not just on unions, but the entire middle class," he said. "Because as we fare around wages and benefits, so do those workers who are not represented."

In addition to pay cuts, Walker is calling for large cuts in benefits for state workers.

The Institute for Wisconsin's Future released a report Feb. 14 estimating that the cuts in pay will cost the state $1.1 billion in reduced economic activity annually, and cost more than 9,000 private sector jobs.

Image: 30,000 gather outside the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison. Karen Hickey/Wisconsin AFL-CIO

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  • STRONG SUPPORT FROM BRAZIL, WHERE, 8 YEARS AGO, (THROUGH MR. LULA DA SILVA) PEOPLE TOOK BACK THE COUNTRY. BE STRONG FELLOW AMERICAN WORKERS

    Posted by MARCELO, 03/09/2011 12:37pm (4 years ago)

  • Hi, The people of this country need to understand that if you elect privatizers you wil get all of what is bad about privitization. In Wisconsin you have a republican governor and Fiengold was replaced by a republican. In the US House you have more republicans instead of 170 being voted out in the midterm elections. These changes are bad for working people and the message from Peoples World is good but your words are not reaching enough working people. peace, gcb

    Posted by gc bannnn, 02/18/2011 6:00am (4 years ago)

  • If the Egyptians can do it, we can do it. All power to the people!

    Posted by John Whiskey, 02/17/2011 10:24pm (4 years ago)

  • Revolution is not only possible, but necessary in the United States. I hope this is only the beginning.

    Posted by Arturo Veloz, 02/17/2011 4:44pm (4 years ago)

  • Good luck from the UK as well.

    Posted by Nick O, 02/17/2011 11:05am (4 years ago)

  • Thanks for the update --in Ontario, we have been following the developments in Wisconsin with concern. Great to see a fightback starting. -- Doug

    Posted by Doug Allan -- Leftwords, 02/17/2011 12:11am (4 years ago)

  • Good luck from California. We need your spirit here.

    Posted by IndyThree, 02/16/2011 7:05pm (4 years ago)

  • If you're a worker, union or not, please come stand with our union sisters and brothers. Walker's vicious attack on unions is literally an attack on the middle class itself, since the very idea of labor laws themselves (40 hour workweek, weekends, child labor laws, workplace safety, etc.) --which create the possibility of upward mobility and therefore a class between poverty and opulence--are the work of unions. This will not be the last attack, either. Governor Christie of New Jersey and Governor Kasich of Ohio are about to try the same thing. Get ready!

    Posted by WI_wageslave, 02/16/2011 5:33pm (4 years ago)

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