When I woke up on Thursday morning, I had no idea that I would be going to sleep in Madison, Wisconsin. When my boss wandered into my office that morning and asked me if I was willing to hop a plane and join a Canadian union delegation in solidarity with the thousands of workers who had been occupying the state capital for 10 days, I didn’t think twice.
Just the day before, I had clipped a photo from the newspaper — one of the rare images of the Madison uprising to appear in the Canadian media. It shows hundreds of people crammed into the capital building, holding signs that say “what’s disgusting, union busting?” and “hands off unions.” It made a stunning picture. It was even more breathtaking in real life.
When I walked down the streets of Madison on Friday morning, I felt like I had been transported to Toronto in the mid-90s. Thousands of people were marching down the streets, heading to the state capital building. There wasn’t a riot cop in sight. It reminded me of the early days of the anti-Mike Harris protests when I was in high school. Overwhelming hope in the face of grim political prospects.
And the prospects are grim indeed. If Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill passes, Wisconsin workers will lose the right to collectively bargain anything under than wages. It will mean an immediate end to workplace rights for thousands of public sector workers. But luckily, Wisconsonites aren’t taking this lightly.
The capital building felt surreal when I entered it on Friday. Roughly 2,000 people had been occupying the building for the last two weeks. University students showed up with air mattresses and crock pots, taking residence in Senators’ offices. Thousands of people have pitched in to help — cooking meals, ordering food to be delivered (lots of pizzas from the now famous Ian’s) and setting up a first aid station and pharmacy. The walls of the building were papered with hundreds of posters and messages of solidarity.
And all day, people marched into the capital. The crowd in the rotunda parted and groups of workers marched through the middle of the building. Firefighters, led by bagpipes cut a slice through the throngs of cheering bystanders. Pipe fitters, power workers, nurses, teachers — everyone seemed to be carrying a sign that described the value of their labour. Lots of people brought their kids, giving the protest the feeling of a giant field trip. In fact, the state had to close schools last week, because so many teachers were taking their students to the capital — providing real-life lessons in the practice of solidarity.
In every coffee shop and on every street corner, people were talking about unions. I overheard snippets of conversation about spouses who had been laid off, families terrified of losing all sources of income, workers infuriated that their government was playing political games with their future.
The protest sign that broke my heart was the one that said, “I will give everything for Wisconsin. Except my rights.” And that pretty much summed it up. The unions have agreed to absolutely every concession demanded by the state — except the proposal to eliminate collective bargaining. This is literally the last straw. If they lose this, then all of their workplace rights will be obliterated in a split second.
But I am convinced that they can win. I have never seen such a unanimous display of solidarity and determination in my life. There were 150,000 people in the streets of Madison on Saturday. Every time a new group of workers marched by, the crowd broke into their favourite cheer, “Thank you! Thank you!” They thanked the teachers who take care of their kids, the maintenance staff that keep their hospitals clean, the power workers who keep the lights on, the administrative employees who mail them their tax forms.
There wasn’t a riot shield or baton in sight. It was the diametric opposite of what I saw at the G8/G20 in Toronto last summer. No horses trampling civilians, no “kettling,” no tear gas, no arrests. There were signs all over the capital building, politely asking people not to deface public monuments. There wasn’t a lick of graffiti on any of the walls. Police officers welcomed people into the building and even joined the occupation on Friday night when the state ordered them to evacuate the students.
The spirit of unity in Wisconsin was infectious and undeniable. The attack on workers is a global problem. People are being forced to pay for an economic crisis that they didn’t create, fuelled by rampant speculation, bank bail-outs and corporate tax cuts. As we head into another federal budget season here in Canada, we will see cuts to public sector jobs and more malicious rhetoric about unions. But I will carry a piece of Wisconsin in my heart for a very long time.
We are all Wisconsin.