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