By Bob Marshall
Throughout my life growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, I heard stories about the city’s great history of protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s. Over time, the anti-war demonstrations grew larger and more violent, coming to a halt after the Sterling Hall bombing in 1970, which took the life of a young physics researcher. Since then, Madison’s tradition of protest somewhat dropped off until recently. The state’s newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker gained considerable criticism when upon assuming office, he turned down $810 million of federal money to construct a high-speed rail through the state, a project the previous administration had already pledged $14 million to create. Walker wanted to use the money for roads in Wisconsin, which the federal government didn’t allow.
The protests in Madison around the state capitol building began last week in response to Walker’s latest bill, which many believe, if passed, would cripple unions throughout Wisconsin and create a domino effect across the country that could see other states passing similar legislation. The bill targets public sector government employees, who traditionally make less money than their private sector counterparts but have substantially better benefits, especially in Wisconsin.
The current bill proposes that public sector employees would put 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their pensions (they current pay nothing toward their pensions) and 12.6 percent of their salaries toward health care premiums (they currently pay about half of that). The bill would also eliminate unions’ collective bargaining rights, which in a sense wouldn’t allow them to ever negotiate their benefits until new legislation says otherwise.
In a college town like Madison, much of the opposition to this bill is happening in response to teachers being included in the bill. Public school teachers across the state aren’t showing up to work in order to protest the bill, and schools in cities such as Madison and Milwaukee have had to cancel classes citywide because of this. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, many professors aren’t having class, either to protest the bill or because most of their students are participating in the protests.
This set the scene for last Saturday in Madison, when I bought a ticket on the Van Galder bus to return to Madison from Chicago to see if newspapers around the country were hyperbolic in their reporting about the massive protests, or if there were actually tens of thousands of protesters encircling the capitol.
Late morning, I made my way up West Washington Avenue from student housing to the capitol, where 70,000 plus people from ages five to 95 were gathered. Even during Madison’s largest celebration, the annual Halloween celebration “Freak Fest” that has ended in riots and tear gas in the past, attracts about 44,000 people. This was something different altogether.
As my former college roommate Jackson and I headed into the state capitol building, we navigated through hundreds of protesters chanting, “Kill the bill!” and ”This is what democracy looks like!” Inside the capitol, the smell of body odor emanated through the marble hallways of the building from people who had been camping overnight for four days to protest. Students and government employees stood shoulder to shoulder under the 284-foot capitol dome, leading chants with megaphones and conga drums for those gathered above on various stairways and archways. Luckily, among the signs proclaiming “Stop the Imperial Walker” were those saying “Remember, this is a peaceful protest.” Nothing I saw for the rest of the day seemed the least bit violent.
We had heard rumors of a Tea Party counter-protest outside and found about 1,000 people gathered on the southeast end of the capitol square. Somewhat roped off from the counterclockwise rotation of marching protesters around the circumference of the building, the signs here told a different story. With slogans ranging from “I support my governor” to those displaying Bible verses, there was a bit more lively discussion here than inside the Capitol.
“I don’t understand! Why do you hate unions so much?” one person asked a Tea Partier. As Jackson pointed out, a large portion of the people at the Tea Party protests were democrats there to argue with Tea Partiers. Still, the protest went off without any punches being thrown, and we made our way down State Street, the mile-long outdoor mall connecting the Capitol with the university campus.
State Street was covered with sign-bearing protesters coming and leaving the capitol building to visit local Madison businesses. Every store around the way was packed, and one restaurant, the Madison-based Ian’s Pizza, which recently expanded into Chicago with a franchise in Wrigleyville, has been making national attention. When we returned to the capitol later that night, an Ian’s employee stopped us to ask us if we wanted any free Mac and Cheese slices. All 50 states and dozens of countries around the world have been calling Ian’s and buying pizza over the phone to keep protesters well nourished during their residency on government property.
Now, I’m not going to say that everyone at the protests was there under the same guiding principles or for the specific purpose of exercising their First Amendment rights. No, a lot of students were there because, in a college town, the biggest party is usually the best party. But, it was inspiring to see my generation, a generation that tends to believe anything not happening online isn’t happening at all, walk away from their computers for a few hours to join the teachers and government sector employees stand up for themselves in a powerful statement heard ‘round the world. And, who can argue with free pizza?
Are comparisons to the Egyptian protests appropriate? Not at all. These are organically Midwestern issues and non-violent in every way. But, we are witnessing what could be one of the most important political movements to take place in recent American history. If unions fall in Wisconsin, they will be weakened countrywide. While Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s Democratic Party affiliation means he won’t go after the public sector in the same way anytime soon, if the bill passes, Chicago might see former Wisconsinites heading south to find a job where they can get their benefits. It’s a slim possibility, but if the bill helps cure what Governor Walker projects will be a $3.4 billion deficit, Illinois legislators could consider similar legislation to close its whopping $13. 5 billion deficit.
The Chicago Teachers Union has voiced their support for the Wisconsin protesters. Meanwhile, a Wisconsin state senator has called for Walker’s resignation after a prank phone call from a Buffalo-based reporter to the Governor Walker revealed that he considered hiring troublemakers to join the protests and start fights among other indiscretions. Madison police chief Noble Wray is also asking for an explanation from the governor about that one, and the battle rages on in Wisconsin. Whether the bill passes or whether Walker is chased out of the state with torches and pitchforks, Wisconsin will undoubtedly set the tone for the political climate in the United States.